12 Boba Tea Brands, Ranked

One of the most distinctive beverages in the world is known not for its taste or color but its look — bubble, or boba, tea. Despite the popularity of the drink today, its invention was a fairly recent happy accident in 1988. A Taiwanese woman, Lin Hsiu Hui — the product development manager of Chun Shui Tang – was enjoying her go-to dessert of fen yuan, a sweet tapioca pudding treat. While sipping her tea, a stroke of playful ingenuity compelled her to pour the tapioca balls into her beverage. Her coworkers loved the newly upgraded drink (via CNN). From there, boba made its way onto the tea menu and sparked the craze. Since it arrived in America in the 1990s (via Eater), the drink has risen from subculture to mainstream — the bubble tea market was valued at a staggering $2.4 billion in 2019 and continues to grow (via Allied Market Research). 

With so many boba brands popping up everywhere, it can be hard to choose one to try, let alone which of the many flavor combinations to taste. There's a lot of competition in the bubble tea market, and tasting every option out there is fun in theory but likely hard on your stomach in practice (YouTubers TwoSetViolin did it with entertaining results). With that said, here's our ranking of the top 12 boba tea chains, ranked.

12. Quickly

If you're in a hurry and desperate for a bubble tea and a satisfying snack, Quickly is the answer for a drink and a small but filling meal. While it may not have the best quality boba, it is the go-to brand for something that'll satisfy a craving (though it won't exceed expectations). Recognizable by its orange and blue logo, Quickly is an older bubble tea chain founded in Taiwan in 1996 (per Technavio). It now has over 2,000 locations worldwide, from Africa and Europe to North America.

The San Francisco location offers savory snacks to munch along with your beverage, like Taiwanese popcorn chicken. However, due to its popularity and perfunctory nature, most people will tell you not to expect the best of service. For example, in the Queens outpost of the chain, one Google Maps reviewer recently ranted about the "abrasive attitude" of the staff and a lack of small and medium size options. Another reason Quickly is at the bottom of our list: One San Francisco shop was recently investigated for being a front for an international fencing operation fueled by stolen goods.

11. Chatime

Next on our list is Chatime, another Taiwanese bubble tea brand, founded in 2005. They have served millions of customers and have over 2,500 locations in 38 countries. While the chain is trusted and has many years of service under its belt, it's not known for its drinks. One initiative Chatime is pursuing, however, is its Chatime Tea Lab, which aims to make every step of its production process, from the tea farm to the shops, transparent — the brand's tea is grown in the central mountain area of Nantou County in Taiwan.

The Chatime location in Irvine, California has an okay rating on Google, though with mixed reviews: One reviewer compliments their banana milk tea but another writes that the drinks were just "okay." However, various Chatime locations have been closing (notably, their location in Chinatown, New York), which may mean that this brand is stagnating rather than maintaining a strong, growing following.

10. Gong cha

Another Taiwanese bubble tea brand, Gong cha, hails from the southern Taiwan city of Kaohsiung, and the name roughly translates to "tribute tea for the emperor." It is another boba chain that has been around for quite some time; it was founded in 1996 by two close friends and was one of the first to offer innovative flavors, recipes, and toppings (like their mango popping boba), with a base of high-quality tea. Gong cha's pearls, or tapioca, are also continuously prepared fresh throughout the day, so you can be sure you'll never get stale or old boba in your drink.

One of the brand's latest unique offerings infuses French inspiration — their crème brulee dolce coffee drink. However, Gong cha's tendency to innovate can sometimes fall flat. Goody Feed TV recently tested out the chain's tomato bubble tea (in collaboration with Heinz) that has ketchup-flavored boba, albeit with regrets.

9. Tiger Sugar

Tiger Sugar is a newer brand that sprang onto the Taichung scene in 2017, but it's quickly clawed its way to the top of international bubble tea chains. According to its website, the company is now an "undisputed cult brand" that uses a "proprietary 8-hour method for cooking [its] syrups and tapioca pearls." Rave reviewers of their Chinatown, New York City location tend to agree. Customers enjoy its black sugar milk tea with boba and cream, which isn't too sweet but is enough to satisfy a sweet tooth with the addition of the black sugar. However, all of the chain's available black sugar syrup-infused drinks are relatively popular (via Yahoo).

Unlike other bubble tea brands, which offer nearly infinite combinations and variations of bubble tea, the Tiger Sugar menu is more pared down and offers around 20 options. But despite this, the chain's arrival in the United States is highly anticipated; you can even find locations inside select H-Mart stores, the beloved grocery chain among Asian Americans.

8. Kung Fu Tea

Kung Fu Tea is another widely popular bubble tea chain, and it's one of the few based in America. It was founded in 2010 in Queens, New York, by three entrepreneurs: Michael, Allen, and Ray. The trio had just returned from a trip to Taiwan and decided that their neighborhood of Flushing needed a better boba tea spot than the ones they frequented. The founders are so dedicated to boba that on April 30, 2018, they started National Bubble Tea Day.

Today, Kung Fu Tea has become the largest bubble tea brand in the United States; it has over 350 locations across the country (via Kung Fu Tea). According to The Washington Post, Kung Fu Tea is the "Starbucks of bubble tea," and the brand was also identified as a major and emerging player in the bubble tea market by Digital Journal. 

Some customers rave about Kung Fu Tea's Cocoa Cream Wow drink and the simpler delicious honey green tea. However, severely lactose-intolerant boba drinkers beware: the milk powder used contains dairy, and the chain currently doesn't have plant-based alternatives that are widely available just yet.

7. Happy Lemon

Happy Lemon was launched in 2006 by the Yummy-Town Group — a Taiwanese tea culture company. In just eight years, it expanded to more than 2,000 locations in 21 different countries. Happy Lemon claims to be "the first in the world to invent the Rock Salt Cheese Tea," even though sources like The Seattle Times note that the concept of adding salted cheese to milk tea was introduced among Tawainese night market vendors first. 

If you aren't familiar with rock salt cheese tea, it's a milk tea with "an inch-thick layer of what is essentially a cheesecake smoothie heavily spiked with salt" (via The Seattle Times). However, Happy Lemon's version of the beverage may not be worth its salt. Some have noted that the cheese topping tastes like "slightly salty milk foam" (The Voice). And as for the other menu options, they've been regarded as average and not as high-quality as the brand lets on. 

6. CoCo Fresh Tea & Juice

CoCo Fresh Tea & Juice is another popular bubble tea chain that has roots in Taiwan and is recognizable by its quirky and cute logo. Founded by owner Tommy Hung in 1997, the brand first came to America in 2011, opening across the street from Baruch College. While CoCo Fresh Tea & Juice has been around for some time, the brand has consistently delivered solid beverages and even has an app for easy ordering and cash rewards. Overall, the brand is a reliable bubble tea spot that has been around for over 20 years and has managed to stand the test of time. If you want a low-down on how their drinks rank, check out David Guison's taste testing of the brand's teas.

Certain CoCo Fresh Tea & Juice locations have mixed reviews with disappointed customers due to overcooked boba or unfriendly or poor customer service. However, its first American store near Baruch College is still getting five-star reviews that claim it's still "better than the average boba place" (via Yelp).

5. The Alley

The Alley is a newer Taiwanese bubble tea company founded in 2015 by graphic designer Mao-ting Chiu (via Eater), hence the brand's immediately recognizable and distinctive aesthetics, including a logo featuring a majestic deer with large antlers. The chain has a cult following and is more up-to-date since its interiors and branding all seem to be designed with an Instagram crowd in mind. 

The Alley uses ingredients imported from Taiwan — except for the fresh fruits — and uses Taiwanese brown cane sugar in lieu of any artificial sweeteners. Even the shorter and rounder shape of The Alley's bubble tea cups looks more designed and camera-friendly.

Their signature drink is the Brown Sugar Deeroica, which cannot be customized in terms of sweetness or ice — it contains no tea and is made up of just deep brown sugar and milk. However, The Perpetual Saturday reports that the drink "is a standout from the rest -– a gratifying treat without being too heavy."

4. Sharetea

Another Taiwanese bubble tea brand, Sharetea, has a unique origin story. The founder, Cheng Kai-Lung, was formerly a film and TV director who gave up a glamorous life in movie magic to make his way to the top of the boba empire — starting as a street tea vendor in 1992. The brand's "bubblicious" drinks can be found in over 13 countries worldwide, across more than 300 locations. 

Sharetea has standard milk tea flavors, fruit teas, and toppings like red bean, aiyu jelly, aloe vera, and tapioca. However, what sets their menu apart is their ice-blended drinks — which are like milkshakes — and made from oreo, taro, or strawberry ice. 

Sharetea may not be an Instagram-friendly brand, but their high-quality teas and locations have respectable ratings, making it a safe bet for a quality milk tea — or ice-blended drink if you're feeling adventurous. One caveat is that for the technologically adverse: Orders must be done online using a QR code for certain locations.

3. Boba Guys

Boba Guys is another American-based bubble tea chain that's a crowd-pleaser across the board, made for third-culture kids, millennials, and Silicon Valley workers alike. The brand was founded in 2011 by Bin and Andrew, who worked together at a messenger bag and accessories company. When their local boba shop closed, the pair decided to launch their own company while also breaking cultural barriers (via Good). 

The company's goal is to make boba more accessible. As the brand grew in popularity, it also upped its beverages' quality and began offering alternative kinds of milk like oat and almond. Boba Guys also has unique bubble tea flavors, like a modern take on Korean banana milk, horchata, ube, and for the health-conscious, an Ayurvedic-inspired golden milk drink with health-boosting ingredients like turmeric and cinnamon.

If you're looking for a trendy boba tea spot to hang out in and don't mind a higher price tag, Boba Guys is your best bet. As one Yelp reviewer of their San Francisco location put it, "I love Boba Guys! It's a bit pricy but they never disappoint."

2. Yi Fang Taiwan Fruit Tea

Yi Fang Taiwan Fruit Tea is a newer bubble tea chain that first opened in 2016 and, in a short time, has grown to over 1000 shops across the world. Self-billed as "not your typical bubble tea shop," the brand is named after the founder's grandmother, who married a young pineapple farmer. One of the perks of the marriage was access to fresh fruit, but a surplus also meant it could result in bad produce. However, Yi Fang decided to braise the overripe golden pineapples and transform them into preservable homemade jam, which is now the base of the brand's popular fruit drink. According to The Franchise Talk, the family recipe was passed down and eventually recreated to use all-natural ingredients like organic cane sugar and seasonal fresh fruits.

The brand was named London's most popular bubble tea chain, and their take on the signature pearl milk tea is called the Mudflip (via Fourteen Ten). While the chain uses the standard ingredients of tea, milk, tapioca, and sugar syrup — their unique spin uses thicker brown cane sugar and a special cooking method to make even richer tapioca. This results in a richer version of the beverage.

1. Xing Fu Tang

Xing Fu Tang is another Taiwanese brand that uses hand-crafted brown sugar boba. According to the founder, Edison Chen, the boba recipe is a family secret handed down to Chen by his grandparents, and their "distinct brown sugar flavor leaves a fragrant scent after finishing a cup."

What makes Xing Fu Tang different is its natural ingredients — the chain is known for hand-rolling its own tapioca balls and does not use any artificial syrups or preservatives. In most locations, you can see the laborious process yourself — or watch it on YouTube. The brand's tagline is "Taiwan's No. 1 Boba", and Yelp reviewers of the Flushing location tend to agree. As Yelp reviewer Azarel B. writes, Xing Fu Tang is the "Best bubble tea in NYC hands down. I thought it would be too sweet judging by looks of the thick brown syrup but it was perfect. The boba is freshly made. It's soft and served warm." 

More proof in the pudding that this chain really cares about delivering quality products: Xing Fu Tang released a statement alleging that certain franchises were "operating without authorization and using questionably sourced ingredients to make the chain's trademarked Brown Sugar Boba Milk drink" (via Eater). This commitment to quality and transparency makes Xing Fu Tang number one in our rankings, not just in the Taiwan bubble tea market, but worldwide.