Peet’s Coffee takes the cultural customization approach to bubble tea

While I didn’t initially see investigating food hype as an intrinsic part of my job, I would never turn down the opportunity to try something a little weird in the name of service journalism.

So this week, The Chronicle commissioned me to try new jelly drinks at Peet’s Coffee & Tea, the coffee chain founded in Berkeley. Introduced a month ago, the “Summer of Jelly” menu is inspired by Taiwanese bubble tea, although it is similar to boba as well as broccoli, which mimics fern. A press release announcing the product line cites the popularity of customizable bubble tea among a younger demographic as the driver to numb the 56-year-old coffee company. Now a permanent fixture, brown sugar jelly can be added to any cold drink…forever.

I stopped at West Portal Peet and practiced saying “Brown Sugar Cold Brew Oat Latte with Jelly” ($6.25) without tripping while waiting in line. Sweetened with vegan and brown sugar, the drink came with compostable boba straws, and those little wobbly jelly were best scooped out.

Unlike regular boba stores, where you can fill your tea with chewy tapioca pearls (actual “boba”), drops of aloe vera pulp, almond jelly, wobbly egg pudding, and cheese foam, there’s a variety of jelly on offer here, and it’s a kind of downer. It’s literally summer jelly, singular. The brown sugar grains of agar jelly floating at the bottom of the oat milk latte were a little chewy, which was fun. But they made a really sweet drink, which was not pleasant.

One has to wonder who this is for. There are about 142 Peet locations in the Bay Area, an area with no shortage of bubble tea shops. The company certainly does not think about winning customers who are accustomed to these stores, the choice of additives and the level of sweetness of drinks is part of the experience. It would be like trying to get a mouse to give up a wheel of Parmesan cheese for a Kraft single. Besides the Bay Area, most Peet locations throughout the United States are in city centers, such as Chicago and Washington, D.C., or their suburbs, and there’s certainly no shortage of bubble tea in those places.

While the American bubble tea industry is about 40 years younger than Peet’s, she has had plenty of time to root herself here. Like Peet’s tea, bubble tea began in California, spawning a distinct subculture of fans: in the case of bubble tea, it has established itself in the culture of young Asian Americans. Bubble tea shops have promoted Taiwanese love of rubbery QQ as well as culinary exports such as tofu pudding, basil leaf-fried popcorn chicken and mochi dumplings.

Globally, the bubble tea market is expected to grow exponentially, from $2.4 billion in 2019 to $4.3 billion in 2027. So of course, Pete, whose owner JDE Peet recently raised $2.5 billion in a European IPO, part of that. But I’m skeptical that such a reckless attempt at a drink next door boba will win over people who have grown up with the drink.

There’s a chance, however, if people start watching Jelly Peel the way some Mexicans view Taco Bell: not a real deal, but a hilarious version of it that’s in a class of its own.

Alternatively – and I hate to say it – you’ll likely find your purchase easily among people looking for a less obvious Asian way to bubble tea. One giveaway is the fact that, apart from the only press release that only people like me read, you don’t see the word “boba” mentioned in any of the new drink menu descriptions or promotional materials. Instead, it’s just a ‘jelly’. There is no hint that the drinks are inspired by an established type of Taiwanese café, either here or abroad. While the series makes an effort to state that jelly is “vegetarian,” it seems unbearable to mention that Asians have anything to do with the idea.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.