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LET'S EAT: Bubble tea about 'whole experience,' Newmarket shop owner says

'I promise to shake it 10 times,' says Joseph Zhang, owner of The Fresh Tea Shop on Main Street Newmarket, of the bubble tea 'cocktails' he creates
Joe Zhang, co-owner of The Fresh Tea Shop on Main Street Newmarket.

If you ask Joseph Zhang, owner of The Fresh Tea Shop on Main Street Newmarket, for a bubble tea, he will pause for a moment and then start asking questions.

“Milk tea or fruit tea? Hot or cold? What kind of topping""

“Bubble tea means the whole concept. It’s a drink with the whole experience," he said. 

And that experience is in the creation of bubble tea.

Much like a bartender, Zhang combines different syrups and teas to create drink flavours, then adds “the innovative toppings” – tapioca pearls, which are called boba, or jellies such as coconut cubes or fruit pearls, and then shakes.

“I promise to shake it 10 times,” said Zhang, who co-owns the tea shop with wife Janice.

Bubble tea, which was reportedly started by a tea shop owner in Taiwan in the 1980s, is traditionally shaken, giving the drink its bubbly appearance, as well as its name. Shaking also helps the flavours combine and makes a cold drink cold the whole way through.

In the end, Zhang creates “tea cocktails” – minus the alcohol. 

“Bubble tea is a casual drink, a dessert beverage.” 

At The Fresh Tea Shop, customers can get various bubble teas, including those made with milk tea – a Hong Kong-style drink made with black tea and condensed milk – and a green tea.

“Hong Kong milk tea is tea with milk that is bitter, and you put sugar in it. With green tea as a base, it’s more refreshing,” said Zhang whose favourite drink isn’t a bubble tea, but rather what people from Hong Kong call ‘Love Birds.’ 

“Black tea with a shot of espresso. It’s so good,” Zhang said.

Janice’s favourite is Awesome Strawberry, a drink that became so popular that it now has a whole line including Awesome Tropical and Awesome Mango, among others.

The original bubble tea served in Taiwan was cold because the country is hot, Zhang said. When The two German tea lovers brought the drink concept to the West, they adapted it, offering bubble tea as both a hot and cold drink.

“Here it’s warm and cold because it’s Canada,” Zhang said with a laugh. “Canadians also prefer more flavour. I have a blueberry milk tea. It’s so beautiful. There is also a honey dew milk tea that is green in colour with popping boba. The whole drink is beautiful.”

Zhang is passionate about creating different flavour combinations — “there is no shortage in what you can do” — and pairing the right drink to the right customers. 

And if he gets customers who don’t know what they want, he will walk them through the choices, letting them taste the toppings and answer their questions. If they still don’t know, he offers them a suggestion and encourages them to try something different the next time they come in.

“I love to talk to customers, to me it’s the best part. I love creating new ideas (for drinks). That day will be a different day, a special day. I love this job. I am like a bartender. It’s just as creative. And more fun.” 

When the couple opened their Newmarket tea shop in June 2014, they were the only bubble tea shop in town. That has changed, thanks to more diverse population.

“As people from different cultures come to this country, local people have the opportunity to try other beverages and food. This is a beautiful thing for Canada.”

But as things become popular, customers need to think about quality.  

Zhang said there are several ways people will know if the bubble tea they are experiencing is good:

  • Ice. Be wary of a drink with too much ice.
  • Milk. Bubble tea shops should have milk alternatives such as soy, oat and almond milk and should use real milk powder, not artificial milk substitutes. 
  • Tea. Tea should be high quality.

“Bubble tea is a very unique, casual beverage just like a Tim Hortons’ double, double,” he added.

There are a variety of places to get bubble tea in Newmarket, including: