On the Job: The surprising challenges of becoming a bubble tea master

Nicola Chan goes behind the counter of her dad’s bubble tea shop to learn how much work goes into the drink she’s always taken for granted

Nicola Chan |

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Nicola wasn’t given special treatment by the boss, even though he’s her dad.

I am a huge bubble tea fan, but I’ve never quite had the patience needed to queue up in the Hong Kong summer heat for a cup of iced milk tea – perhaps because I’ve never had to. Whenever I have a bubble tea craving, all I have to do is to visit Popotea, my dad’s Taiwanese drink shop in Shau Kei Wan.

I’ve had access, over the past 14 years, to countless free drinks without ever having to lift a finger. I had never imagined there would come a time when I would become my dad’s apprentice for a day, and learn how to make iced bubble tea myself.

Before I arrived for my day of work, almost all the ingredients had already been prepared by my father – the ice was crushed, the tapioca pearls were cooked, and the red tea brewed. This was going to be easy, I thought. Making bubble tea would be a piece of cake.

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Oh, how wrong I was. 

My dad told me that the first step to making the perfect cup of tea is to transfer a spoonful of pearls into an empty cup. Easy enough – the only tricky part to this was having to use the slotted spoon to strain away some of the syrup that the pearls were soaked in. As the day wore on, I realised that the syrup would get thicker, making it harder to strain. Luckily, my dad knew just what to do, and added a bit of water to thin out the syrup. Phew!

The next step was to add some ice to the cup. I couldn’t measure exactly how much ice I needed because it had already been crushed, but my dad told me to just add a little more than half a cup each time. “You need to make sure you add the right amount of ice; if you add too much, the drink will become bland, but if you don’t add enough, the drink will be warm.”

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Adding the ice to a regular milk tea order was no problem, but my dad said it would be a lot harder to do if I had to prepare a drink that involved combining a powdered drink mix with hot water.

The next step was to fill the cup with the pre-made milk tea. If you’re not careful, the milk tea will run down the sides of the measuring jug and spill onto the floor. I have no idea how my dad can do this step so quickly and confidently without spilling any tea. I have seen him, during peak hours, work with four bubble teas in one hand! 

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Photos: Alejo Rodriguez Lo/SCMP

For customers who don’t have much of a sweet tooth, my dad told me to make sure not fill the cup up to the top, so that extra red tea can be added to reduce the drink’s sweetness.

Before the last step – sealing the cup – I had to make sure the liquid would not flow over the brim, and that there wasn’t any ice in the way of the lid. Then I had to carefully place the cup into the sealer machine, otherwise the tea would spill and all my hard work would be for nothing. This was something I learned from my first attempt, when I pushed too hard and splashed tea all over the counter. There’s no use crying over spilled milk – or spilled milk tea – in this business!

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After I sealed the cup with plastic, I turned it upside down. This is a final check to make sure the drink won’t leak. Then it was time for me to do something I knew I was good at – poking a straw through the plastic cover and enjoying the fruits of my labours.

Making a cup of bubble tea required way more precision and skill than I thought it would, and this had been just a taste of what my dad has to do on a daily basis with many more drinks. He also somehow manages to find the time to socialise with his customers while he is making sure the quality of the drinks he serves is always up to standard. It was only after my day as a bubble tea maker did I realise the amount of blood, sweat, and tears my dad puts into running his shop! The next time you buy a bubble tea drink, give your server a smile and show a little appreciation for the person who is quenching your bubbly thirst.

Edited by Nicole Moraleda