A panic erupted on the West Coast this week. Over a drink.
It happened when beverage aficionados learned that tapioca, the starch used to make the sweet, round, chewy black bubbles — or pearls — that are the featured topping in the popular boba tea drink, was in short supply.
“I was shocked,” said Leanne Yuen, a longtime boba drinker and student at the University of California, Irvine. “What am I going to do now?”
The impending boba shortage is yet another sign of how the pandemic has snarled global supply chains, upended industries and created scarcities of goods from toilet paper to electronics to ketchup. In this case, a surge of pent-up demand for products assembled abroad, coupled with a shortage of workers because of coronavirus cases or quarantine protocols, has caused a monthslong maritime pileup at ports in Los Angeles and San Francisco and left ships delivering goods from Asia — including tapioca — waiting out at sea.
Boba or bubble tea, a drink that can be made with milk or fruit-flavored green or black tea, originated in Taiwan and has steadily grown in popularity and prominence in the United States throughout the 2000s. Boba suppliers based in the San Francisco Bay Area who are running low on tapioca said their shipments of fully formed boba come from Taiwan, while supplies of cassava root, which is used to make tapioca, come from Thailand and islands in the Pacific Ocean.
Instagram post this month that some boba shops had already run out of tapioca balls and others would follow in the next few weeks. The owners of Boba Guys also operate the U.S. Boba Company, which produces and sells tapioca pearls to other stores around the country.
The boba shortage, which was first reported by The San Francisco Chronicle, has boba fans in a panic. A post sharing the news in the Facebook group Subtle Asian Traits, a gathering place for Asian people around the world, attracted 10,000 comments and messages of dismay and sadness.
Boba is “something that translates across a lot of Asian cultures,” said Zoe Imansjah, a student at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and an administrator of the Subtle Asian Traits group. “Something so simple can bring a lot of people together.”
Ms. Yuen, 21, gets boba once or twice a week and sells boba stickers online. She said she grew up visiting a boba shop near her house in South San Francisco with her parents, and now considers getting boba a great way to socialize with friends.
“A lot of my Asian-American friends will bond over boba,” said Ms. Yuen, whose family is from Hong Kong. “Hong Kong has a lot of good milk tea. It brings us back to our roots, in a sense.”
cheese foam, fruit jellies or egg pudding.
“Maybe I’ll try to take a break from the tapioca to relieve that pressure,” Ms. Yuen said.