Black sugar – an unrefined version of the familiar sweet crystalline substance but with a rich, inky hue and dark caramel flavour – has consumers queuing up for hours on end from Taipei to Singapore.

More than just a distinctive sweetener, it is also used by traditional Chinese medical practitioners who recommend it to provide an energy boost and enhance blood circulation, among other things.

This combination of flavour and function has made black sugar a star ingredient in a range of products sold everywhere from traditional tea shops to hip new lifestyle outlets.

Popular Taiwanese bubble tea shop Tiger Sugar has ridden the black sugar craze to become an internationally recognised brand. Founded in November 2017 as a single shop in Taichung, on the western side of Taiwan, the brand now has locations in Singapore, Macau, Hong Kong and the Philippines.

Its trademark drink features thick black sugar syrup shaken with creamy tea and slow-cooked tapioca pearls. Its makers recommend shaking it 15 times to create the characteristic stripes that the drink is known for, and to bring out the traditional flavour of Taiwanese bubble tea – sugar and milk, but rebranded for the Instagram era.

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Its distinctive look has been imitated by a host of other bubble tea shops seeking to cash in on customers’ insatiable appetite for black sugar.

The Tiger Sugar chain, owned by parent brand Clover Lifestyle, opened its first outpost in Malaysia this month and has plans to expand across Asia.

Unlike its heavily processed white counterpart, black sugar retains more of its nutrients and a slightly savoury flavour. It has recently become the stand-out ingredient in a plethora of drinks and desserts that have gone viral on social media.

Unprocessed sugar, like the black stuff from Japan’s Okinawa prefecture that flavours many popular bubble teas, has been an essential ingredient in Asian cuisines for centuries.

Jaggery, like black sugar, is made from the unrefined juice of sugar cane, but there are also various types of palm sugar made from the sap of coconut and other trees – each with its own distinctive colour and smooth, smoky flavour.

The appeal of black sugar’s enticing caramel flavour has been enough to compel people to queue for hours outside the places that serve it.

“Tiger Sugar is the ‘it’ shop, it’s trendy,” said Ezra Cheyne Sereneo, a 23-year-old nurse from the Philippines who was standing in line at the brand’s flagship shop in Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay.

Camellia Chan, 24, from Singapore, is a fellow enthusiast who could not wait to sample the substance during her week-long trip to Hong Kong. Her previous efforts to visit Tiger Sugar’s Singapore outpost had been stymied by hours-long queues. When her time finally came, she selected the bestselling black sugar cream tea, noting it had just the right amount of sweetness.

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Whereas Tiger Sugar has taken the internet by storm, racking up thousands of likes and followers, Taiwanese chain Sharetea has slowly expanded over decades to capture a share of the global market.

The company began in 1992 as a single shop in Taipei serving black tea with milk, yet today it has over 500 locations in 15 countries and territories – with more than 50 stores in Hong Kong alone.

Ken Ngai, a senior executive at Lian Fa International, ShareTea’s parent company, said the chain targets younger people and aims to deliver “pure Taiwanese flavour” by carefully selecting its sweeteners.

“Okinawa black sugar flavour is famous for its fragrance and sweetness, with no artificial flavours or colours added,” he said.

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Long produced in Taiwan, black sugar has been a staple ingredient since the earliest days of Taiwanese bubble tea, which began as a simple combination of tea, milk and sugar shaken until foamy bubbles floated to the top. Flavourings and the signature tapioca pearls were added later, but the viral black sugar trend recalls the taste of the original.

Black sugar also features in the food therapy lessons of professor Dang Yi at Hong Kong Baptist University’s School of Chinese Medicine, who said it has long been an integral part of traditional Chinese medicine owing to its warming properties.

“Black sugar is rich in vitamins and nutrients,” Yi said. “For cold diseases or problems stemming from cold, consuming something warming like black sugar can help relieve the symptoms.”

She recommends combining black sugar with ginger to treat coughs, for example, but points out that it will not have a beneficial effect on everyone.

“I don’t think there is a food that is suitable for every person,” she said, adding that people with high blood pressure and diabetes should avoid it.

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In Taipei, at Jodie’s Kitchen – a restaurant and cookery school where students learn how to serve up dishes using quintessential Taiwanese ingredients – founder Jodie Tsao thinks that black sugar is better than its paler counterpart.

“Black sugar is not so sweet, the flavour is better, and we feel it’s healthier,” she said.

“These days people and businesses are more health conscious. Consumers prefer black sugar in food, desserts, or bubble tea.”

“Black sugar contains a variety of minerals that have been removed from more highly processed sugar,” she said.

Because of its timeless yet trendy nature, black sugar is a prized ingredient at upscale bakery and teashop Teakha in Hong Kong’s Sheung Wan district, where owner Nana Chen sweetens her single-origin tea drinks with it.

“We’ve been using Okinawa black sugar in our drinks from day one. It definitely has a warming property, there’s a lot more depth to its sweetness,” she said.

“Black sugar has been paired with ginger or osmanthus in lots of old Chinese recipes for a long time. It just makes people feel good.”