By Phang Yeu Yeou (19A01A), Sarah Lok (20A03A), and Ng Ziqin (20S03H)
On the 4th of May, Raffles Press headed down to NEX to compare three bubble tea stores and the eight drinks we bought from them—Tai Gai, Yuan Cha, and PlayMade by Wan Zuo—in order to decide which of the eight would emerge superior to the others. We evaluated the drinks along the lines of taste, price, visual presentation, and most importantly—“would we buy this again?”.
Bubble Tea Reviewer Profiles!
Yeu Yeou: The one with more adventurous tastes than not, and the most reflective (indecisive) critic of the trio. She is not adverse to experimenting with her drinks (sometimes), and appreciates it when bubble tea stores go out of their way to try novel combinations to great effect. Despite only being a bubble tea convert in recent years, she now frequents Brawn Cafe’s gong cha department on a biweekly basis. She also prefers her milk tea to contain more milk than tea, though she has no qualms with pure tea that doesn’t pretend to be what it isn’t.
Sarah: The one who is a social bubble tea drinker. She rarely frequents bubble tea stores, and is usually found drinking water, kopi C siew dai peng, or watermelon juice. With a dislike for overly sugary drinks, she is Ziqin’s polar opposite in that she only takes her bubble tea with 0% sugar. Makes rather quick decisions with regards to what she likes, and is highly open to trying a variety of new flavours (even though her next cup of bubble tea is contingent on her friends’ future drink decisions).
Ziqin: The one who has only ever ordered one kind of bubble tea in her whole life: Milk Tea with Pearls™. A girl who believes that the classics are classic for a reason and who usually needs to be dragged out of her comfort zone kicking and screaming (at least food-wise). She has no idea why she signed up for this bubble tea review. Prefers natural flavours over artificial-tasting ones, but was also—up until recently—a 100% sugar bubble tea drinker. Usually knows what she likes and sticks with it, but will admit to occasionally being surprised by an unexpected new favourite or two.
If you find yourself having similar taste buds to any one reviewer (or two), follow along with their write-ups!
First Stop: Tai Gai
Nestled in NEX’s basement, the first thing we noticed as we drew closer to the store was the availability of seats (that the other chains sorely lacked, and which sent us scurrying to the rooftop for seats). The concept behind the seating area itself also caught our eye for its futuristic bent (far from your conventional tables-and-chairs arrangement) but ultimately still highly comfortable for sitting in for long stretches of time. The ambience was decidedly café-like, with the photobooth-like decor and the implied invitation to linger contributing to the store’s laid-back vibes all around, and we were able to secure a table for ourselves–despite not making a move to purchase a drink for around 30 minutes–without getting chased out. The demographic here was the youngest of the three stores we’d visited, with customers mostly in the teens-20s age group.
We’d heard much about Tai Gai’s fruity series, and were eager (albeit laden with misgivings) to start our review off on such an unorthodox foot. Unfortunately, the drinks’ sizes and sugar levels are non-customisable, so if you’re someone who likes that aspect of your bubble tea, then you may want to take that into consideration.
To their credit, they also had the most interesting lids of the three stores we visited, with hard plastic lids (to drink the cheese foam through) for their fruity tea series, and a bear-shaped one that managed to capture our hearts and win over our affections. That commitment to the aesthetic and attention to detail carried over into other aspects as well—from the cardboard holders around the drinks (as seen in the photo below) to the huge rectangular paper bags to cart all our drinks home in (as seen in the photo above)—all branded with the Tai Gai store name, of course.
Pulpy Strawberry Kiss ($6.80)
We first got a taste of what we were getting into when one of our reviewers took the last three samples of this particular drink to our table to try. Although another one of our reviewers immediately began critiquing its consistency, we proceeded to buy it anyway, armed with false confidence in online strangers who’d given it positive reviews.
Yeu Yeou: I like strawberries, but I didn’t like this drink as much as I’d hoped to. They’d have fared better by my review if they’d included actual strawberry chunks—as they did with the pineapple drink from the same series—instead of mashing them all into a gooey pulp. Not a bad drink on the whole, though perhaps erring on the side of syrupy sweetness. A drink for those who prefer their desserts in drink form, or who otherwise want the taste of strawberries without their concomitant acidity.
Sarah: Whilst I liked the flavour and texture of this drink, I felt that the foam didn’t go too well with its strawberry flavour. This drink would also be better if it had a customisable sugar level.
Ziqin: Very pulpy and instantly recognisable as strawberry, but there was a weird syrupy aftertaste. Actually got better when I came back to it later on to compare with the other drinks. Maybe because the ice melted and it got more diluted?
The Verdict: This drink is proof that second chances can be a good thing. For the more health- or sugar- conscious out there however, you’ve been warned. Still, the price point might be a little steep–at $6.80, this was the most expensive drink we tried all day, albeit admittedly among the largest.
Subliminal persuasion from the decor.
Pulpy Pineapple Kiss ($2.00 after the discount)
A wild card we’d not originally intended to get, we were persuaded into giving the drink a go by the cashier who very slyly directed our attention to the sign advertising it for just $2 with any additional purchase. As any self-respecting kiasu Singaporean would, we leapt at the chance to score a $4+ discount—especially after being informed that it was the second last day of the promotion.
Yeu Yeou: I’ll be the first to admit that I was the most skeptical about the concept of fruit teas before today (seeing as I don’t care for even ordinary fruit teas sans milk on a day-to-day basis), but I was strangely enthralled by this drink. I’m partial towards pineapples, and I loved that they included actual pineapple chunks (not too chunky) in the drink. Unlike the strawberry kiss, this drink managed to retain the full force of its pineapple essence without tipping into a sugary disaster, though it’s certainly still more smoothie than tea. The cheese foam also paired better with the pineapple than it did with the strawberry, perhaps because both have that ‘umami’ quality to them that the strawberry lacks. A zesty drink that feels like sunshine in liquid form.
Sarah: This drink is for all the fruit lovers out there, especially so for those who have an affinity for pineapples. I had my initial doubts regarding the combination of the pineapple flavour and the cheese foam (and questioned Yeu Yeou’s and Ziqin’s seemingly impulsive decision to purchase another drink) but they actually managed to coalesce well together. Additional satisfaction was definitely derived from it being $2.00.
Ziqin: I will admit, I went “oh no” right after we paid for this because I thought we had made a bad choice with the impulse buy. But it was surprisingly good, actually even better than the strawberry. This hit all the right notes. Fresh, sour, tropical. Loved it. Combined very well with the cheese foam (which tasted more like cheesecake than cheese). I might actually buy this again, even at full price.
The Verdict: Sometimes spur-of-the-moment decisions end up working out for the best after all. How’s that for a life lesson?
Beary Co Co ($4.80)
With its endearingly cute and Instagram-worthy cover—coupled with one of the reviewers proclaiming the bear as her favourite animal—we knew that we had to get this drink. The other occupants of Tai Gai didn’t even bat an eye as we played with the flashlight function on our phones to get the above photo—perhaps having to bear witness to such a spectacle more than once before had long since hardened them against our brazen social infraction.
Yeu Yeou: Nostalgic! The drink to try if you want to relive your childhood, or if you’ve got the taste buds of a child yourself. It helps too that the pearls are small and unobtrusive, almost as if they were made for sliding down your gullet; if you yourself are averse to pearls as I once was, maybe give this drink a shot? Taste-wise, the cocoa was richer than I expected, and yet not at all heavy as some chocolate drinks tend to be. Also, I’m partial to bears and aesthetic presentation, so I’ll definitely be returning for this drink.
Sarah: I initially anticipated for this drink to be extremely thick (due to the sheer amount of chocolate in it), but was pleasantly surprised to find that it was not the case—the proportions of this drink’s constituent ingredients are just right. This is one drink I’ll be buying again (sometime in the future).
Ziqin: I thought the bear silhouette projection was a little underwhelming, but taste-wise, I really loved that rich cocoa taste. This drink reminded me of clumpy hot chocolate powder and childhood, and I mean that in the best possible way.
The Verdict: When in doubt, nostalgia can warm even the flintiest of hearts, for no one ever gets too old for chocolate.
Second Stop: Yuan Cha
If Tai Gai gave off café-like vibes, Yuan Cha was strangely reminiscent of a a herbal wellness store. From the green and white colour scheme to the walls of bamboo poles, it felt as if by walking into the shop space, we were subscribing to a healthier lifestyle (or as healthy as one can get when it comes to bubble tea).
While Tai Gai and PlayMade seem targeted towards a younger, more adventurous demographic, Yuan Cha’s focus—according to their website—is on the brewing of that quality cup of tea. Surprisingly, the demographic here appeared to be not much older than the other two stores’ (from the limited time we spent there), consisting mostly of adults in their 20s-30s (and even one baby!).
This time round, we were able to customise the drink size, and gladly chose to get all drinks in a size medium to save our rapidly expanding bladders. On the cashier’s recommendation, we decided to get one milk and one non-milk drink for comparison.
Milk Tieguanyin with QQ Rainbow Topping ($3.50 before GST)
Additional specifications: Medium, 25% sugar
The milk tea was significantly less thick vis-à-vis other bubble tea outlets, with the tea greatly overpowering the milk. We had originally planned to get the QQ yam topping as it was recommended by several food blogs, but were unfortunately informed that it was out of stock.
Yeu Yeou: Absolutely despise. I’ve no objection to the toppings, but milk tea where the milk is there but barely present just tastes like wet socks to me. Also, I can scarcely taste the yam toppings (no matter how chewy) because of how distractingly vile the milk tea is. Then again, I almost never get the standard milk tea with pearls combination, so if that’s your taste profile, then take my words with a grain of salt. A drink for the non-ambitious.
Sarah: Although the tea overpowered the milk in this drink, I quite liked its consistency as it was not overly thick. Furthermore, the rainbow toppings–albeit slightly tasteless–were extremely chewy.
Ziqin: Ouch. Harsh words, Yeu Yeou. But yes, this was probably the drink which tasted the most like my usual order. I liked the strong tea taste and the QQ rainbow topping had a pleasant texture (it was very fun to chew).
The Verdict: Mixed reviews. Hamlet was wrong. To tea or not to tea, that is the real question.
Plum Vinegar Oolong Tea ($3.80 before GST)
Additional specifications: Medium, 25% sugar
This drink was yet another notable point of contention between the reviewers: one loved it, one was indifferent, and one despised it.
Yeu Yeou: Maybe I’ve just got a stronger stomach for the sour side of drinks, but I don’t see what all the angst is about with this drink. It’s good tea, nothing bad about it. In fact, I love what they’ve done with this combination, being a fan of sour plum and vinegar and oolong myself. Also, from personal experience, it’s the easiest drink of all those we’ve tried today to stomach after a heavy meal (or too many rounds of drinks—not advisable).
Sarah: I probably don’t have the taste buds for this—the combination of the sour plum vinegar and its overly strong aftertaste was sadly just not my thing.
Ziqin: I was the last person to try this and it wasn’t as bad as Sarah’s reaction would suggest! The first thing that hits you is the vinegar. There’s an oolong aftertaste after you swallow it. Very refreshing. (Fun fact: I actually used this as a palate cleanser in between drinks while we were close ranking.)
The Verdict: Mixed reviews again. This is exclusively for those who enjoy sour plum, vinegar, oolong, or an amalgamation of the aforementioned items.
Third Stop: PlayMade by Wan Zuo
In sharp contrast to the other two, the ambience at PlayMade was decidedly more like an NYC street: rush rush rush with a queue that snaked on for fifteen-people long. Neither was there much of a designated area for people to queue or wait for their drinks without somehow obstructing the way of those who just wanted to cut through. Curiously enough, we noticed that athletes (or at least people appropriating athleisure gear) formed the bulk of the queue—perhaps due to its proximity to Anytime Fitness just one level above? However, with the store providing customers with a live showcase of their pearl-making process, the wait was made slightly more bearable.
Another thing that set this store apart from the rest (and particularly Tai Gai) was the ordering protocol: we had to order through an interactive interface, that allowed us to customise everything from the size of the drinks to their sugar level to the amount of ice to the type of pearls—though it still wasn’t enough for some of us (see below).
By this point our taste buds were well and truly exhausted, and so we thought to simplify things by matching the pearls with their respective drinks, particularly since the sheer diversity of their pearls was marketed as the selling point of the brand. Do note however that not all pearls advertised are in stock, though you can always count on pink cactus/black sesame/burnt caramel to be available. We also got all our drinks in a medium size for the same rationale as Yuan Cha. If for no other reason, the spectrum of colour of our drinks also made for a fun picture (see below).
Burnt Caramel Latte with Burnt Caramel Pearls ($5.10)
Additional specifications: Medium, full caramel, less ice
Despite ordering the drink at full caramel strength, we were sadly disappointed by the lack of caramel flavour in the drink itself.
Yeu Yeou: Yet another drink that falls prey to being more sugar than flavour—I’ve ordered this exact drink (give or take the pearls) twice before, and yet I don’t recall it being quite so… tasteless. If this is indicative of a recent scale-back in caramel from the branch, consider it a future pass from me.
Sarah: The caramel taste was unfortunately absent in the tea, and I could only taste the caramel in the pearls. Nothing really struck me about this drink, so I probably won’t be drinking this again.
Ziqin: This also tasted a lot like my usual order, but not in a good way. It tasted like regular milk tea to me. There was a very strong caramel taste in the pearls but I don’t like caramel and anyway the pearls were a little too sweet.
The Verdict: If you think you can’t go wrong with caramel, think again.
Black Sesame Milk Tea with Black Sesame Pearls ($4.50)
Additional specifications: Medium, 25% sugar, less ice
A beige drink with black pearls, this drink could almost be mistaken for the timeless classic of milk tea with pearls. One sip, however, is all it would take for this drink to imprint its individuality on your mind (and your tastebuds).
Yeu Yeou: Easily the drink with the most interesting texture for me, seeing as the sesame powder isn’t fully mixed into the drink, but rather collected in sediment flakes (that no amount of shaking will dissolve into the drink, don’t even try), giving the drink a rather gritty (but not to the point of choking) sensation. I particularly like how the pearls behave almost like pandora boxes in a sense—chew on them for long enough, and they’ll explode in a sensation of sinful sesame delight. Definitely tastes more like black sesame than burnt caramel tasted like burnt caramel.
Sarah: The drink was slightly reminiscent of black sesame tang yuan. I enjoyed the mixture of the milk tea alongside the sesame powder—easily one of my favourite drinks of the day. No idea where Ziqin derived the apparently plasticy taste of this drink from.
Ziqin: I maintain that this drink left a weird, plasticky taste in my mouth. Also, there was too much milk. I’m usually a fan of black sesame desserts (like black sesame tang yuan), but this gets a no from me. Had to take a big sip of the Sugar Plum Vinegar Oolong Tea right after drinking this to reset my taste buds.
The Verdict: Seeing as the texture of this drink is a point of contention, picky eaters (drinkers?) beware.
Pink Cactus Smoothie with Pink Cactus Pearls ($5.40)
Additional specifications: Medium, less ice
The store’s signature, if their marketing is to be believed, and a drink we couldn’t afford (in more ways than one) to pass up. One of our reviewers was especially keen to have the others give their opinions on the drink, with the two having hitherto never tried it before.
Yeu Yeou: It’s got a rather unique taste that I’m a fan of—potent, refreshing, and not easy to find elsewhere (no, Bandung doesn’t quite taste the same). My main gripe with this drink is that you can’t tweak the sugar level to make it less overpoweringly sweet, and it baffles me why they wouldn’t include that as a menu option. That said, it’s a very pretty drink, and a cheaper alternative to the Starbucks pink drink if that’s your aesthetic.
Sarah: Although I really liked the colour of the drink, I found this smoothie too sweet for my liking (even though I had only taken a few sips out of it).
Ziqin: The colour reminded me of Bandung and the taste, of liquified candy. Maybe if you have a very sweet tooth. *reaches for Sugar Plum Vinegar Oolong*
The Verdict: Know someone with a sweet tooth? Great. This drink is definitely suited for those with an innate propensity for (highly) sugary drinks.
After arduous rounds of deliberation, coupled with stares and not-at-all-discreet photography from curious onlookers seated at the tables around us, we made our final judgment on the overall ranking of all the drinks we had bought. To no one’s surprise, after our mixed reactions to various contentious drinks, our individual rankings were strikingly different from one another’s, and the only way we were able to achieve a “consensus ranking” was to number the drinks (as seen in our photo captions below) and tally up the points, with the drink with the lowest points emerging victorious. Read on to see which was the champion drink of the day!
- Tai Gai’s Pulpy Pineapple Kiss (4 points)
- Tai Gai’s Beary Co Co (7 points)
- Tai Gai’s Pulpy Strawberry Kiss (13 points)
- PlayMade’s Black Sesame Milk Tea with Black Sesame Pearls (16 points)
- TIE: PlayMade’s Pink Cactus Smoothie with Pink Cactus Pearls; Yuan Cha’s Plum Vinegar Oolong Tea (17 points)
- TIE: Yuan Cha’s Milk Tieguanyin with QQ Rainbow Topping; PlayMade’s Burnt Caramel Latte with Burnt Caramel Pearls (18 points)
* Final Note: Don’t try this at home, kids. From personal experience, symptoms of booboo tea overdose include, but are not limited to: Vomiting, fever, and excessive saliva production.