Latest tea trend leads to big lines, many posts

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Latest tea trend leads to big lines, many posts

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From left: Tiger Sugar’s brown sugar tea. Tiger Sugar’s first store in Korea, in Hongdae, western Seoul. Ad for Gong Cha’s version, Heukhwadang’s brown sugar tea ad. [CHUN YOUNG-SUN]

It started just three months ago in Hongdae, western Seoul. Now, the brown sugar boba tea craze is sweeping the land.

At Tiger Sugar’s flagship store near Hongik University in northwestern Seoul, 30 or so people were lined up outside on a recent day. Others walk past staring, one commenting: “So, this is the place.”

This branch is considered to be Ground Zero of the craze. The store was opened in March.

Twenty minutes later, the number of people lining up doubled to 60. Some held the drink in their hands and were busy taking pictures at a photo zone set up in the store and posting on Facebook and Instagram.

Most of the people lining up were young women in their 20s and 30s.

The brown sugar boba fresh milk drink has taken the local beverage market by storm and is dominating the business this summer.

Since the Taiwanese milk tea franchise opened the first location in Hongdae, five more have been established.

The drink is double its home market price, but people still line up.

During the weekend, some people waiting in line just gave up and went home empty handed.

Bubble tea, which is made with sweet tapioca balls the size of marbles, has been around for a long time. The main difference now is that the drink uses Taiwanese brown sugar.

Milk and the tapioca pearls are poured into black tea and then caramelized brown sugar syrup is added. Sometimes cream is added on top.

Many on social media talk about the extreme sweetness, some saying it is like drinking honeycomb toffee in liquid form.

But more than taste, people express excitement about the visual appearance of the drink.

The dark brown sugar syrup looks like the stripe of a tiger against the milk, an image often posted on Instagram.

This is why Tiger Sugar has set up photo zones in each shop, maximizing the social network postings as a marketing tool. The only difference between the current favorite and the already popular tea drinks is the use of brown sugar.

The growing popularity of the Taiwanese drink hasn’t gone unnoticed, and other beverage companies are aggressively coming up their own versions.

Heukhwadang, a Korean franchise that opened in December last year, is pushing its own brown sugar bubble tea. In just six months, it has opened 34 stores nationwide, of which 11 are in Seoul.

Heukhwadang - the second brand of Mengxiang 82, a Korean company that popularized the Taiwanese Nougat cracker in Korea - is selling a brown sugar drink 100 to 200 won ($0.13) cheaper than Tiger Sugar.

Gong Cha, which has run Taiwanese milk tea shops in Korea since 2012, is also riding the brown sugar drink wave. It started offering the drink on April 17, and has sold 1.3 million as of May 26.

That’s equivalent to selling one drink per second.

Gong Cha says the brown sugar milk drink is so popular, it often runs out before the day ends. A Gong Cha store in Hongdae on Wednesday had a sign saying it was temporarily out of stock.

It’s not just milk tea stores selling the drink, as Dunkin’ Donuts and coffee franchises like Ediya and Paikdabang have brown sugar drinks on the menu.

The industry is skeptical about how long the popularity will last.

Some say it could end in an instant, as was the case with Taiwanese Castella sponge cakes.

According to food and beverage industry experts, summer beverage trend cycles last one to two years at most.

“We still have to see if it will continue to remain as a popular product as it is too sweet and high in calories,” said an industry insider, who requested anonymity.


BY CHUN YOUNG-SUN [kim.heyu@joongang.co.kr]
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