Nicholas Phan started London's Biju Bubble Tea to make sure that his favourite drink was always made as well as it could be
Bubble tea is a big thing in Asia - everyone loves it: creamy, sweet, often flavoured tea with chewy black tapioca pearls bobbing at the bottom of a tall cup, and a big straw with which to slurp them up. There's a general misconception that these chewy tapioca pearls are the bubbles - but they're not. They're just the pearls! The bubbles in bubble tea come from the fact that the drink, once prepared, is shaken in a cocktail shaker to produce actual bubbles and make the drink frothy.
About 4-5 years ago, bubble tea started making a comeback. During a trip back home to Singapore, I noticed that a new shop that had recently opened was selling two different categories: fresh milk and milk tea. My curiosity was piqued - if the one was made with fresh milk, what was the milk in the other? I was told that milk tea was usually made with powdered milk. Now, this was around the time when there was that big powdered milk scandal in China, so finding out that that's what I'd been drinking in my bubble tea all these years was a bit of a shock! I felt cheated ...
On my return to the UK, the trend was picking up - a bunch of new places had opened, but I was disappointed. Everything was so artificial - the flavours, the colours. I decided the food scene in London deserved better than £3.50 for something bad made with powdered milk, so I spent the next year-and-a-half figuring out a plan.
I went on a two-month research trip to Taiwan and learned a lot about the bubble tea industry there, and how supplier-driven it was: everything from the ingredients to the recipes came from the suppliers, and they were naturally averse to change. The shops claimed to be tea specialists, but the tea they used was never freshly made. Instead it was made in vast quantities and reheated, either in kettles or with steam wands. Anyone who drinks tea will tell you that is no way to treat it!
In Singapore fresh milk isn't good - it has a vanilla flavour, which I'm fairly certain isn't produced by the cows themselves. But I love British milk. So I decided I wanted to make bubble tea with fresh, organic milk, freshly made tea and natural flavourings. We wanted to cater to eastern as well as western tastes - which is a slightly tricky balance to strike. Taro milk, for example, or ice honey green tea, are such classic Asian choices, whereas UK customers love ice passion fruit and ice peach tea.
We opened on Old Compton St in Soho, London, five months ago. We serve five different categories of drinks: milk (with green or black tea), ice tea (no milk, just fruit flavours), fruity milk (no tea, just milk and fruit flavours), mousse tea (sweet tea with savoury mousse) and - this one's slightly out of left-field - coconut water. We offer almond and soy milk as well as regular cow's milk. Our tapioca pearls are baked fresh every two hours, and we prepare our own toppings too - cubes of herbal jelly or egg pudding, balls of popping fruit juice ...
We really look after our customers and get excellent feedback. It's such a good feeling to see someone nodding and smiling over an ice peach tea on a hot day.
Nicholas Phan of Biju: 'A bunch of new places had opened in the capital, but I was disappointed,' he says 'Everything was so artificial - the flavours, the colours. I decided London deserved better.' Photograph: Jarosav Moravec/Guardian