Looking back on my personal history with milk tea while making my own Brown Sugar Boba Milk Tea at home. This easy and delicious brown sugar syrup can be used for any sort of milk tea!
If I had to describe milk tea’s ascension to popularity in Manila based on my own memories, I would say that it came in three “eras”. The first would be the “Era of Quickly, Zagu, and Ersao“, aka the era of the semi-instant drinks with the relatively mediocre pearls. (I say that now in hindsight but mean no malice.) I remember I was in high school around this time and I was excited about trying these drinks, but I never really found myself particularly craving them.
Several years later, a new milk tea player opens its doors in town. I honestly thought this was going to be another passing trend, but it would eventually mark the beginning of the REAL milk tea craze. I would dub this as the “Era of Serenitea“, because, again, to my memory, they were the first real game-changers. They opened my eyes to the marked difference between an authentic milk tea drink and a milk tea drink made of flavored powder. They were responsible for starting my personal love affair (and pickiness lol) with milk tea drinks. And no, I am not writing this to promote them, because Lord knows they don’t need any of that. It’s just the simple truth.
Serenitea drove home the point that using real tea does matter, and that different kinds of tea makes the flavor of the drink unique. And you know how I can tell that they’re using actual tea in their drinks? Whenever I drink a cup of black tea-based milk tea after 6pm, I am wide awake until past midnight. We used to order often enough that I had a usual: Hokkaido Milk Tea with Pearls and 25% sugar. It changed to Matcha Espresso with coffee jelly and 25% sugar, until I learned how easy it was to make this drink on my own. Now I am obsessed with ordering Hokkaido Espresso or Okinawa Espresso, again at 25% with coffee jelly. I just make sure I drink it before 5pm lol. (Admittedly though, we don’t all that often these days.)
The third notable era is the “Era of the Brown Sugar Boba”. I think most people still remember the insane lines when Tiger Sugar opened its first franchise here. Thankfully I’m not the type of person who gets a thrill out of being among the first to try out a new trend, so it took me a really long time to see what this whole brown sugar thing was all about. I admit I am not a huge fan of the Brown Sugar Milk drink because… it doesn’t have any tea in it. (My tastebuds demand milk TEA.) BUT I do understand why people go gaga over it, all over the world in fact.
There’s something about the brown sugar syrup-drenched boba that makes it so addictive. On its own it’s cloyingly sweet, which is something I tend to run away from, and yet once it’s in a drink that tempers this sweetness, what’s left is this really deep and rich toffee-like flavor that is almost even smoky. I think maybe the reason why I don’t like the Brown Sugar Milk version is because milk can only do so much to control this sweetness, but add strong bitter tea to the mix and the drink becomes way more balanced. And way more delicious. For me anyway.
Making your own brown sugar pearl mixture is pretty easy. In fact, once you whip up a batch you can pretty much add it to any milk tea of your choice. (Heck, you can do just milk. I won’t judge.) Brown sugar boba elevates drinks to heights that regular pearls in simple syrup cannot reach. But again, I firmly believe the matter of picking the right drink to pair with it is important too. Anything sweet will just make the drink over the top. Personally, there are three drinks I enjoy regularly making when I cook up a batch of brown sugar pearls, but I’ll only be sharing two on this post: a classic Brown Sugar Boba Milk Tea with black tea, and a Taro Milk Tea with Brown Sugar Boba using jasmine tea.
Brown Sugar Boba Milk Tea
You guys, I know this is probably a ridiculous amount of recipe notes to make for a freaking drink but you know I want to give you as many pointers as I can to lead you to success, so here we are:
- MUSCOVADO IS THE KEY. If you live in the Philippines, I highly doubt you will have any problems acquiring muscovado sugar. Muscovado is basically unrefined cane sugar that naturally contains molasses, and that alone will give you an idea about the unique flavor of this sugar. I really do not advise substituting brown sugar if you really want to make this recipe taste like the store-bought version. The depth of flavor muscovado gives is not the same as that basic caramel flavor regular brown sugar imparts. If you’re putting in effort and indulging on this anyway, use the right sugar.
- TRY TO ACQUIRE GOOD TAPIOCA PEARLS. This is a challenge because I honestly have no idea which brand makes the best kind of tapioca pearl locally. I used Ersao‘s uncooked pearls and nearly half of them turn to dust when added to boiling water, although the pearls that do end up getting cooked whole don’t taste too bad. The texture and bite to them is good too. Maybe one of these days when I’m less busy I’ll try to make my own pearls.
- COOK THE TAPIOCA PEARLS WITH AMPLE WATER. This is very important. As a rule of thumb, I use 4 cups water to 1 cup of uncooked pearls. If you don’t use enough water the pearls will not cook right. Use a big pot so the water does not boil over since you’ll be cooking this at least 20 minutes, 30 tops so they don’t turn to mush. (If cooking less pearls, it’ll take less time.) Make sure to stir the pearls occasionally so they don’t stick together. You’ll know they are done if they’re soft all the way to the center. (Give one a try to be sure.) Do not overcook the pearls!
- IMMEDIATELY RUN COOKED PEARLS UNDER COLD WATER. Just like with noodles, running cooked pearls under cold water cools them down and stops the cooking process. Your goal is to have pearls that are “crunchy” or have a nice chewiness to them. Nobody likes mushy pearls! Immediately add the pearls to your syrup so they don’t clump together or harden.
- MAKE THE BROWN SUGAR SYRUP WHILE THE PEARLS ARE COOKING. This is so that the syrup has a bit of time to cool and you don’t dump your cooled down tapioca pearls into a hot mixture.
- GIVE PEARLS TIME TO SOAK IN THE SYRUP. While 30 minutes should be enough, I like to soak them for an entire hour. The pearls become completely coated with the flavorful syrup, and the syrup thickens as more time passes. After this window of time, the pearls and syrup are ready to be used in your favorite drink. I recommend using just 1/4 cup per serving because more may be a little too sweet.
- PREPARE THE MILK TEA AHEAD OF TIME. If I’m serving this at noon, I like to make the milk tea before anything else early in the morning. Then I leave it in the fridge until ready to serve. This way, the milk tea has time to mature in flavor, and it also slightly thickens and becomes much creamier once it’s cold. Plus, since the milk tea is very cold by this point, you don’t need to add that much ice to the drink and may avoid the risk of diluting it.
- USE GOOD BLACK TEA LEAVES. It doesn’t have to be super expensive tea leaves, but it should at least be something that you would actually enjoy drinking lol. I like using Assam tea leaves for my milk teas but any other black tea you like (ie. Ceylon, Earl Grey, etc) will work.
Brown Sugar Boba Milk Tea
For the Milk tea base
- 3 cups milk, both whole and 2% worked out fine for me
- 1 Tablespoon or 2 tea bags good loose black tea leaves, I like Assam black tea for this
- Ice, for serving
For the Brown sugar syrup
- 1 cup water
- ½ cup dark muscovado sugar
For the Tapioca pearls
- 4 cups water, for boiling pearls
- 1 cup good-quality, uncooked dehydrated tapioca pearls
Make the Milk tea
- In a saucepan, stir together the milk and tea leaves over low heat, until the milk starts to steam. Do not allow the milk to come to a boil! Turn off the heat and leave the tea leaves to steep in the hot milk for 20 to 25 minutes. The milk will gradually change to a lovely beige color.
- Give the milk a little stir to incorporate the tea essence properly, then strain out the tea leaves into a carafe or pitcher with a lid. The milk tea should be fairly cool at this point. Keep it in the fridge while you prepare the other components. The milk tea will thicken and turn creamier as it cools.
Make the syrup
- Cook the tapioca according to package instructions. Typically a 4:1 water to pearl ratio should be enough. (I always make sure to stir the tapioca after adding them into the boiling water to avoid clumping. Once they start to float, I put the lid on and leave them to cook anywhere between 20 to 30 minutes, depending on manufacturer’s instructions and quantity of pearls that I am cooking. I stir the pearls occasionally just to make sure they don’t stick together.)
- Meanwhile, in a small saucepan over low heat, combine the water and muscovado sugar. Stir until the sugar is melted and bring to a boil. Turn off the heat and leave it on the stove while you wait for your pearls to finish cooking.
- Once pearls are done, immediately drain and run under cold water (or dip in ice water) to stop the cooking process. Add the cooled down tapioca pearls into the brown sugar syrup and leave them to soak for at least 30 minutes, up to 1 hour. The longer they soak, the more flavorful they will become. The syrup will also become noticeably thicker.
- When ready to serve, scoop 1/4 to 1/3 cup of the boba with the syrup into your serving glass. (This will depend on how much you love boba!) If you want, you can also decorate the sides of your serving glass with extra syrup. Add in the ice cubes, then pour in the milk tea. Stir to distribute the brown sugar syrup into the drink and enjoy with a large straw!
Taro Milk Tea with Brown Sugar Boba
I do not yet have the time to make Taro Milk Tea from scratch, but you can bet that’s on my to-do list. Powdered taro doesn’t quite hit the same, but it will do in a pinch. This is just an option you might want to consider making if you have some extra brown sugar boba and some taro powder around:
- USE GOOD TARO POWDER. I honestly have no idea what the best taro brand you can get locally is, but the powder I had was not the best quality. I wish its flavor was a little stronger in this drink.
- USE GOOD JASMINE TEA, BUT NOT TOO MUCH. You can use 2 jasmine tea bags for a stronger tea component, however be warned that it might overpower the taro flavor of the drink. Drinks that come in powder form have limitations, and this is a fact. In my experience, using just 1 tea bag allows for the taro flavor to shine more, although of course this will also depend on the quality of your taro powder.
- FEEL FREE TO PLAY AROUND WITH THE TEA TO MILK RATIO. I generally like 2:1 tea:milk ratio for this particular drink. If you like it milkier, add more milk. If you like it with more tea flavor than milk, then use more tea. Experiment! It’ll taste great with the brown sugar boba no matter what anyway lol.
Taro Milk Tea with Brown Sugar Boba
- 1 cup hot water
- ½ Tablespoon loose-leaf jasmine green tea*
- 3 to 4 Tablespoons good-quality taro powder, or more to taste
- ½ cup full cream milk or half-and-half
- 1/4 to 1/3 cup of cooked boba pearls in brown sugar syrup, recipe above
- Brew jasmine tea for 5 minutes. (The ideal brewing temperature of jasmine green tea is 176°F (80°C) to extract the most flavor without getting bitter.) Strain out the tea leaves into a measuring glass, then stir in the taro powder until fully dissolved. The mixture will be a pale purple color. Allow the mixture to cool, or pour into a cocktail shaker with ice and shake to cool it down.
- Into serving glass, add the boba with the brown sugar syrup. Add ice, then pour in the tea mixture. Top with the half-and-half or milk to complete. Stir to distribute the brown sugar syrup and milk into the drink and enjoy with a large straw!
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