Boba tea lovers may soon be missing the chewy balls they crave as a shortage of bubble tea pearls spreads across the U.S.
“In the next week or so, tapioca will be a luxury because no one is going to have it,” Tommy Huang of Leadway International, one of the biggest boba suppliers in the U.S., told the San Francisco Chronicle.
The problem is that America’s balls are at the mercy of global commerce.
Most boba tea pearls are imported, usually from Taiwan, and simply rehydrated and finished at your local cafe. Even U.S. producers, like Leadway International and the Boba Guys-affiliated U.S. Boba Company, depend on imported raw ingredients. Pearls require tapioca starch, and most of the world’s tapioca starch supply comes from Thailand.
International shipping remains significantly backed up, due in significant part to pandemic-era shopping habits. All those new desks, sofas, and backyard gazebos that U.S. customers have been ordering in record numbers over the last 14 months have packed shipping containers heading to U.S. ports–leaving little room for other cargo.
“They have all these products in Taiwan sitting at the port waiting to get loaded because there are no containers available,” Herrick Lam of Boba Supplier told the Los Angeles Times. Even once the items find space in a container, it takes at least two weeks to make the journey from Taiwan to the Port of Long Beach, Lam notes.
Christopher Kowk, owner of Hey Hey in Echo Park, told the Los Angeles Times that he thinks he has about two month’s worth of pearls on hand, though restocks beyond that time are unclear. Even the extra-wide straws that allow the pearls to be sucked up are in short supply.
“This is an industry-wide shortage,” Boba Guys warned customers in an Instagram video. “Some boba shops are already out. Others will run out in the next few weeks. […] Don’t get mad at boba shops for running out of boba!”
While the lack of bubbles for bubble tea might seem like a minor inconvenience, it can have a serious impact on small businesses. One Bay Area cafe owner told the Chronicle that an estimated 70 percent of her customers request pearls in their drinks–and many simply walk out when told there are none to be had.
There are still plenty of interesting options to try if your local shop is out of boba the next time you stop in. Consider trying non-tapioca based jellies or getting into cheese tea for the time being.