Toilet paper, ketchup, and now—boba tea. The trendy drink gaining popularity in the US is the latest product in short supply because of the pandemic. The nation is "entering a boba crisis," is how the San Francisco Chronicle begins its account of what's happening. For the uninitiated, boba tea (also called bubble tea) is generally a mixture of black or green tea, milk, ice, and—crucially—"chewy little spheres" made from tapioca starch in the bottom of the cup, per CNET. These are called tapioca pearls or boba balls, and the shortage revolves around them. Sellers get their boba balls from Taiwan or the tapioca starch to make them from Thailand, and those overseas shipments are caught up in what MarketWatch calls a "massive shipping backlog" on the West Coast, one that could take months to resolve.
“It’s all being held up at the docks,” Arianna Hanse of boba supplier Fanale Drinks tells the New York Times. A post at Business Insider notes that the tea has "exploded in popularity" in the last few years. It's big on the coasts, but making inroads elsewhere. One national survey found that boba tea was the most popular delivery item in the early days of the pandemic in California, Hawaii, and Michigan, notes MarketWatch. “In the next week or so, tapioca will be a luxury because no one is going to have it,” Tommy Huang of another supplier, Leadway International, tells the Chronicle. “It’s going to take a long time to be able to say we will not have a shortage of tapioca.” The issue is a real problem for small tea shops already struggling. “If you don’t have boba, they don’t want the tea," the owner of the Tea Hut in the Bay Area tells the Times. "They just leave.” (Read more tea stories.)