America’s Boba Shortage

Your favorite drink is in danger!


Art by Ilah Walker

 Tapioca pearls in milk tea have become a fan favorite for adults and young people alike. First developed in Taiwan by Liu Han-Chien in the 1980’s and becoming popularized in the 2000’s in the United States, tapioca pearls are following a pattern similar to many other products including ketchup, garden gnomes, and, most infamously, toilet paper early in the pandemic. However, your favorite drink might be on its way out this summer, or at least partially. It may be time to start trying some new toppings in your milk tea, such as popping boba or alone because the United States, starting in California, is set to experience a shortage of tapioca boba pearls that could last months into summer. 

This shortage, like many other problems in 2020 and 2021, is being exacerbated by COVID-19. In addition, the famous blockage of the Suez canal by the massive “Ever Giver” container ship only further delayed incoming shipments of boba ingredients. 

Boba pearls are made from tapioca starch and cassava root which is not typically grown in the U.S. Needed ingredients are primarily grown in South Asian countries, then shipped in mass quantities with other products on cargo ships to parts of California. But of course, due to California’s lockdown, the busy ports came to a screeching halt, creating the backlog of boba that seen have today.

 Although a lot of boba is processed and formed on our side of the pacific ocean, for our shops this crucial disconnect in supply chain infrastructure is having drastic effects on manufacturing and thus the boba market as a whole. 

A local Seattle boba shop had some input on the matter. 

Amanda, a bobarista at the University District Boba Up was reached for comment. She said that the store is rationing what boba they have left as customers flood into the store as more and more people learn about the shortage taking place on the West Coast. 

As a replacement, she suggested that loyal tapioca pearl buyers try pudding as a new  alternative topping as it was the closest thing in sweetness and texture to the pearls that she could think of. According to Amanda nothing of the sort has ever happened in her time working at the store so it’s a new and challenging experience for all the staff.