Emma Vonderheide and Michael Bowser, owners of Uncharted, stand behind the counter within their Congress Street cafe. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

When Uncharted Tea co-owner Emma Vonderheide lived in California for four months in 2018, one of her top takeaways was that bubble tea is a huge deal.

“Bubble tea is on every corner out there,” she said. “It’s very saturated.”

On the occasions when her life and now business partner, Michael Bowser, came to visit, he was similarly struck by the enormous popularity of the beverage, also known as boba. “And I wondered why it wasn’t this big everywhere else in the country,” he said.

After some research, Bowser soon came to learn that bubble tea – a blend of milk, tea and black tapioca pearls or spherical fruit-flavored jellies, usually served iced, that originated in Taiwan in the 1980s and soon became a go-to drink throughout Asia – migrated to America’s West Coast in the 1990s, where it was embraced both within the Asian community and beyond. Boba then made its way to major Eastern cities in the 2000s.

When they opened their own boba shop, Uncharted Tea on Congress Street in 2019 – even though the only bubble tea shop they knew of in the Portland area was Bubble Mania (which closed in 2021) – Vonderheide and Bowser knew they were tapping into a trend with likely staying power.

“When we first opened, people would make trips up from Kennebunkport, down from Lewiston, 30- to 45-minute trips just to experience bubble tea,” Bowser said.


The Black Pearl at Uncharted – black tea, oat milk, maple syrup and boba. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer


The boba market has boomed since then, proving the young entrepreneurs prescient. The global bubble tea market reached 3.27 billion in 2022, according to the market research organization Precedence Research, and is expected to climb to about $6.1 billion by 2032, with the United States claiming about 29% of the boba market share worldwide, second only to Asia’s 37%.

The boba boom has hit Maine for sure. At least five new bubble tea shops have opened in the state since November, including Kim Boba Tea & Coffee on Mellen Street and Lecha on Stevens Avenue in Portland, as well as farther-flung locations like Quickly Boba Café in Brunswick, Boba OOB in Old Orchard Beach, and Bubble Tea Café all the way up in Presque Isle.

The drink is also on the menu at many local Asian restaurants, like Keg and Kraken or Crunchy Poke, and has even been sold at major chains like Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts.

An employee stirs a strawberry green tea at made with strawberry popping boba at Quickly Boba Cafe in Brunswick. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The boba trend has been fueled largely by Gen Z and millennials – generations often motivated by FOMO – and turbo-charged by millions of social media posts. A #bubbletea search on Instagram yields more than 3 million posts showing seemingly endless variations of the striking beverage, with tapioca pearls settled on the bottom of cups and the teas tinted in a rainbow of colors, softened to pastels by the milk in the mix.

“People see it on social media and want to be part of the experience, part of the trend,” said Jear Jujaroen, a regular customer at Lecha and friend of the owner, Som Mantasut. “The younger generation also wants to be more worldly and cultured, and so to them, this is a bit exotic in a way. This is them experimenting and showing their open-mindedness to trying new things.”


“Our demographic is Gen Z and Millennials, definitely young, 20 to 29 or younger,” said Vonderheide.

“But because we’ve been around a little bit longer, we’re seeing all ages groups coming in now, including people in their 50s, 60s and 70s,” Bowser added. “It’s really cool to see how it’s gone past what we thought our target market was.”

Mantasut grew up drinking boba in Bangkok, and is heartened to see kids turning older family members on to the treat. She says in Deering Center, where Lecha is located, “There are lots of children around. And they bring their parents and grandparents who are not familiar with bubble tea to get to know it. And they like it.”

“I think it’s bringing the entire community together,” agreed Jujaroen. “Yes, it might be popular among middle school and high school students, however, it’s a great place for families to come and gather. It’s a fun experience for the whole family.”


Being as customizable as an ice cream sundae is a big part of bubble tea’s appeal to all ages. At Uncharted, for example, customers can choose from eight kinds of tea for their boba, seven kinds of dairy milk and alt-milk, seven fruit flavorings, five sweeteners and five “toppings” – the tapioca pearls, jellied lychee slices or popping bubbles filled with fruit flavorings that get added to the mix and slurped through extra-wide straws.


Bubble tea gets its name in part from the tapioca pearls, or popping bubbles, and also from the tiny bubbles that form at the surface of the beverage as it gets vigorously shaken during preparation. The word “boba” doesn’t mean bubble, but is Taiwanese slang for women’s breasts, broadly referencing the shape of the tapioca.

“Bubble tea has made a space for itself as a really fun treat or snack, and the tapioca pearls can be filling,” Vonderheide said.

“A lot of people say it holds them over as a snack between breakfast and lunch,” Bowser added.

Michael Bowser, co-owner of Uncharted, makes a bubble tea. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Depending on your tastes, you can create a boba at Uncharted with 100 calories and zero grams of sugar, or 500 calories and 27 grams of sugar – or anything in between – in 16- or 20-ounce sizes. (Custom teas start at $4.25, with add-ins ranging from free to 50 cents.) Working within this general range at whatever boba café they visit, some customers are more inclined to create a straightforward milk tea, while for others, boba becomes more of a drinkable dessert.

“It doesn’t have to be sweet. And you can also get it hot, so it’s very versatile,” said Tami Goodrich of Yarmouth, who visited Kim Boba Tea & Coffee for the first time on a Wednesday morning earlier this month with her 16-year-old daughter, Morgan. “We come down to Portland specifically for bubble tea. We love it.”

Morgan is a huge boba fan, as are most of her friends. The mother and daughter agreed that the tapioca pearls, with their neutral starch taste and satisfying, gummy bear-like chew, are a big reason why they’re hooked.


“Everybody likes bubble tea. It’s pretty popular around here,” said Joe Wilson, manager of Mellen Street Market, where Kim Boba is located. “The kids love it because it’s fun and different, and they tend to gravitate toward things that look appealing. My daughter is 13, and she comes over every day to get one.”

“People either love or hate the bubbles,” said Tami Goodrich. “It’s a texture thing. But it’s like a treasure in your drink. Like bubble gum ice cream when we were younger, just an adult version of that.”


To properly enjoy boba tea requires special equipment, namely a straw nearly half an inch (12 millimeters) in diameter, wide enough to allow the tapioca pearls or popping spheres to flow freely.

“When you’re drinking something with a straw, the last thing you expect is for something solid and chewy to come through,” said Vonderheide.

“You get to interact with bubble tea a bit more than other beverages,” said Jujaroen. “It’s not a passive experience. In a way, it makes you more present and in the moment.”


Vonderheide said she and Bowser have had the opportunity at Uncharted to see boba skeptics – first-time customers wary of a partly chewy beverage – get converted into fans in real time.

“They experience it, and they’re like, ‘Whoa, I’m going to come back and try some more flavors – I like that,’” she said.

Tapioca balls are added to a cup for a Taro Milk Tea at Quickly Boba Cafe in Brunswick. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

With a projected 6.5% compound annual growth rate in the United States through 2032, the bubble tea industry is poised to pick up countless new fans. Bowser said he expects Portland and surrounding communities in southern Maine will see at least a dozen new boba shops over the next five years.

At Lecha, Mantasut is already enjoying steady business since opening in June, and from older customers, too.

“Especially people who live in this neighborhood,” Mantasut said. “They’re out walking their dogs or biking, and this is like their destination for a rewarding treat after exercise.”

She expects business will tick up significantly more this fall when classes resume, bringing throngs of students from area high schools and colleges to Lecha’s door.

“We were open for the last two days of school in June,” Mantasut said, smiling broadly at the memory of it. “We saw a lot of repeat customers.”

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