It’s been quite some time since boba shops have entirely, or even mostly, been about the tea. There’s foam-topped cheese tea, which was all the rage for a good minute last year, and boba hot pot even put in an appearance in San Jose, all trends that made their way from Taiwan and elsewhere in Asia to densely concentrated Taiwanese-American communities in Los Angeles, New York, and, eventually, the Bay Area.
Tiger Sugar, a Taiwan-based boba chain that’s opening its first Bay Area shop in Cupertino this fall, as Palo Alto Online first reported, shines a bright and Instagram-friendly spotlight on what has been one of the buzziest boba drinks for the past year or two — one that dispenses with the tea altogether. The shop specializes in brown sugar boba milk (aka brown sugar fresh milk boba), which takes tapioca balls that have been cooked slowly in a sweet, caramelized brown-sugar syrup and serves them in plain cold milk. The syrup provides all the sweetness, resulting in a uniquely creamy, refreshing drink, with a deep caramel flavor that fans of the beverage can’t get enough of.
Founded in Taichung, Taiwan in 2017, Tiger Sugar is widely credited with popularizing the brown sugar boba milk drink, first in Taiwan and then internationally — though that isn’t to say that the chain invented the drink. In fact, these so-called “fresh milk” boba drinks have been around in Taiwan going back well over a decade. The drink even has a poetic name: 青蛙撞奶, which roughly translates as “frog bumps into milk” — a reference to the fact that tapioca pearls are sometimes called “frog eggs” because of their appearance.
What Tiger Sugar likely is responsible for, though, is turning the drink into an Instagram sensation. David Chang, the general manager of the forthcoming Cupertino shop tells Eater SF that it wasn’t only the creamy, caramel-y flavor of Tiger Sugar’s brown sugar boba milk that has drawn hours-long lines when the chain debuted in cities like New York and Los Angeles. It’s also the particular style and appearance of the drink, which is served unshaken so that cup is lined with attractive streaks of brownish-black syrup — not dissimilar to a tiger’s stripes, hence the name.
According to Chang, there are certain “trade secrets” involved in how Tiger Sugar employees prepare the drink that give it a unique look, even compared to the versions sold at other shops. (Some online recipes suggest rolling the cup on its side after adding the syrup, but Eater SF cannot verify if this is canon.)
Apart from Tiger Sugar’s menu of boba milks and other boba drinks, Chang offers one other piece of exciting news: When the Cupertino shop opens — for takeout only, probably in early October — it will likely also sell Tiger Sugar’s other most highly coveted, viral food product: the ice cream bar version of the company’s signature drink, which features that same distinct caramel flavor, as well as actual (and legitimately chewy, not stale) boba embedded into the ice cream. Asian grocery store enthusiasts may have seen a few different brands of this ice cream bar flavor in the freezer aisle in the past several months. Tiger Sugar’s is, in fact, one of the most popular — and often sold out.
Chang says Tiger Sugar has plans to open additional shops in other parts of Northern California. In the meantime, the good news is that there are plenty of other boba shops that serve brown sugar boba milk: In San Francisco, 1011 Sip Tea and Black Sugar both specialize in the drink. And in Oakland Chinatown, Meet Fresh and One Zo both feature it prominently.
Tiger Sugar will open at 19620 Stevens Creek Blvd. #180 in Cupertino in early October. Check the company’s Instagram page for updates.