“The tasting sessions can drag on for a few months”: A Q&A with the bubble tea experts behind Chatime’s drink menu
We paid a visit to their research and development lab in Markham
Kenton Chan, the founder and CEO of Chatime Canada, says the popularity of bubble tea in Canada has grown exponentially over the past decade, especially in the last few years. What was once considered a novelty has now become a weekly—if not daily—go-to drink for many Torontonians. “Everybody knows about bubble tea now,” says Chan.
At Chatime’s head office in Markham, the team is constantly working in the research and development lab—which is a replica of one of the retail stores—to ensure their menu items serve the preferences of the brand’s diverse consumer base. At the forefront of the innovation process are Shirley Chen, head of operational excellence, and Kai Lin, head of product and new venture, who both started working at Chatime stores before moving into their current roles. We sat down with them to chat about the process of creating their menu, what takes place behind the scenes and tips for first-time bubble-tea drinkers.
How do you come up with new drink ideas?
Kai: We have a major brainstorming session in the lead up to a new calendar year—it can last anywhere from two to four months. During that time, we try to forecast trends and look for new inspiration. It’s a fun process because we come up with a lot of different ideas. After the brainstorming, we start scheduling tasting sessions, which usually involve a lot of people.
What flavours or ingredients are currently trending in Toronto?
Shirley: Mango has always been really popular, but right now peach seems to be the new mango. We’re seeing a lot of peach-infused cocktails on restaurant menus.
Where do you get your inspiration?
Kai: We travel to a lot of different places in Asia. For example, we went to Thailand and learned a lot about Thai tea and how to make it. Then we worked with a distributor there to import the tea. Something else that came out of our Thailand trip was our shimmer drink series. We noticed a lot of edible glitter—which is traditionally used for cake decorating—inside alcoholic beverages there. So we started experimenting and introduced a series of fruit teas that have a mesmerizing kaleidoscope of shimmer.
You mentioned taste tests that involve a lot of people. What happens during these sessions?
Shirley: It’s about not just agreeing on certain drink ideas but finding the right balance of ingredients and how best to incorporate them. For example, when we introduced our pumpkin spice drinks, we tried a lot of different syrups from various suppliers—at one point, we even thought about making our own. Some of the drinks we made with the different syrups had a really strong cinnamon taste while others had a really strong chai spice taste to them. We had to find the right ingredients, the right tea base and the best way to customize it.
Kai: This means that sometimes the tasting sessions can drag on for a few months before we finalize everything.
Shirley: One rule Kai has in the test kitchen is that we can’t just tell him we don’t like the drinks—we have to give him the reasons why we like or don’t like them.
Kai: I want to know the details. I want to know if certain ingredients or flavours don’t work. Besides making sure it tastes good, we have to make sure it looks appealing too. That part comes last. There was one drink we used butterfly pea flower tea in. It tasted good, but it turned grey when we made it, so we had to let it go.
Have you had any other recipes that didn’t quite work out the way you had hoped?
Kai: We worked on a collaboration with Kellogg’s so we could incorporate Corn Pops, Fruit Loops and Frosted Flakes into our drinks. But that was around the time when Covid started, so everyone was ordering these drinks for delivery, and by the time they received them, the cereal inside was very soggy.
Shirley: We had to pivot really quickly.
Kai: We saw all the negative feedback on social media and came up with a new recipe, which was more of a smoothie option. But it was still polarizing—some people loved it, some people hated it.
Have you noticed differences in how people like their bubble tea in Asia versus here in North America?
Kai: They really value the taste of the tea base in Asia. While fruit flavours and sea salt crema are becoming more popular over there, people in Asia are generally not as sweet-toothed as North Americans.
You mentioned “sea salt crema.” To a non-bubble-tea drinker, this may sound…interesting. Can you explain what it is?
Shirley: We make our sea salt crema topping with cream and a sea salt mixture. We whip them together until the mixture reaches a frothy and creamy consistency, so it’s not as heavy or savoury. It pairs best with our Jasmine Jade Green Tea or Chocolate Hazelnut Delight.
How can first-time customers order the bubble tea that’s best for them?
Shirley: For one, we list the intensity level of each tea on the menu, which should help. And customers can always ask our “tea-ristas” if they have questions. New customers should then think about the general tea base they want—milky, dairy-free, caffeinated or not. But what a customer chooses can also depend on the time of day, their mood or what they just ate. On a hot summer day, our Tropicolada series is the perfect way to chill out and is available over ice or as an ice-blended smoothie. In the morning, for anyone needing a hit of caffeine, I would suggest the brown sugar milk tea with a shot of espresso. I think my suggestion for first-timers is not to be afraid of experimenting.
What about all of the toppings and customizations? The options can get a bit overwhelming.
Shirley: Think about bubble tea as a drinkable dessert. No one is limiting you to adding just one topping. I think a good way to approach it is to think about your favourite dessert and apply those flavours to bubble tea. My personal opinion is that tapioca goes best with black teas and coconut jelly goes best with green teas. But, in general, tapioca goes well with every drink on the menu whereas the taste and texture of the coconut jelly makes it a popular option for fruit tea and smoothies.
What are your favourite Chatime drinks right now?
Shirley: My new go-to is the Strawberry Passion Tea with crystal boba and zero sugar. I also like the Golden Lily Oolong Milk Tea with fresh milk and coconut jelly.
Kai: And you can never go wrong with the Chatime signature roasted milk tea.
Any upcoming drinks or collaborations on the horizon?
Shirley: We have an exciting partnership with a famous confection brand—unfortunately, we can’t reveal any details yet.
Do you think you’ll ever get sick of bubble tea?
Shirley: I’m still not tired of it! We keep changing combinations and using different flavours. The creativity that goes into designing and making these drinks is what still excites me. I love exploring and trying new things, which is what this job allows me to do.
This interview has been edited and condensed.