I’m not sure I ought to be tagging this blog entry as “Tea Excursion” since this place is a three minute car ride away from my house.
The big news this week in Ann Arbor is the soft opening of CoCo Fresh Tea & Juice. It’s so popular that their recently posted facebook site is refusing to load on a broadband connection. Being a large franchise bubble tea chain (boasting over 3,500 stores at the time of writing), most CoCo stores in the West are located in NYC, LA, Toronto and Vancouver. For Ann Arbor to be getting a store is a testament to the size and of our Asian and Asian-descent population, but also to our love of tea. Ann Arbor has had Bubble Island for well over a decade, and an independent Hong Kong-style cuisine and bubble tea shop, Sweetings, for the entire existence of this blog (though it’s name has undergone several incarnations). Last year we gained another chain, Teaspressa (a childish luxury boutique hangout that assumes tea shops can only thrive if they look exactly like hip LA Luxe coffee shops) that has a product i guess i would class as bubble tea. In addition Ann Arbor is home to many Chinese and Korean restaurants that also sell Boba (TK-WU, Evergreen, Tianchu, etc.). It’s interesting to note that due to declining foot traffic, during this blog’s hiatus Starbucks has closed nearly all of their Teavana stores and the Ann Arbor store was no exception. I’d thought this might result in kind of a blow to me personally as I regularly shopped there for teaware (not so much their absurdly overpriced teas), but the reality is, I simply shifted my buying habits to online and Sur le Table (strip malls apparently fair better in this economic climate) and to salivating over TeaHaus’s gorgeous imported teaware. But i digress.
I’d known that CoCo Fresh Tea & Juice was coming for some time, thanks to its proximity to my favorite bookstore. I’m close with the owners of Bookbound (pictured below) and they’d mentioned that the former smoke shop next door to them was being turned into a tea shop over a year ago. It wasn’t clear until they finally put up their awning a couple months back that we were getting a CoCo. I’m vaguely familiar with CoCo Fresh Tea & Juice (the seeming adjectival mistake in its title stuck with me) from a trip to LA a few years back, but only enough to make me really want to explore (and blog about) this new hyperlocal option. The exact timing of the soft open was unclear, but i regularly glanced at the storefront out the bus window on my ride home from work. It finally opened this week, at the very end of the semester, but with only word of mouth as advertising… that, and the visible and omnipresent lines that sprang up.
It turns out, in a very Japanese pop-up-store fashion, CoCo (a Taiwanese company established in 1997) was giving away a cute and practical bubble tea cup sleeve to the first fifty customers in the door every day this week. Of course once i got wind of that (via Yelp–it was too current for the Current), i knew i had no choice but to give in to the limited time only marketing. After all, I’m going to Toronto in a week and a half: home to over 100 independent bubble tea shops, if ever there was an actual application for a bubble tea cup sleeve, it would be there. Braving the 30-40 degree F temps, I was third in line yesterday morning, but offered to let six or seven people go before me so as to avoid scaring the staff with my odd tea-journalist looks. Though I’d also heard that CoCo had been selling out of everything before regular closing hours for the past few days, so I couldn’t really be 49th in line either. As it turns out, one of those seven people i let cut in line ordered 13 teas to take back to her dorm. Karma?
I ended up settling on four of the ten available flavors: Mango Yakult, Triple Delight, Matcha Milk Tea with Red Beans and Taro Milk Tea with Sago. If you’re not a bubble tea drinker, these flavors sound exotic to say the least, but let me assure you, they are highly drinkable and delicious.
The Mango Yakult, which I’d heard was good and was the most exclusive, ended up tasting like little more than an uninspiring mango smoothy with a bit of passion fruit like grit. I wasn’t familiar with yakult, and for good reason. Yakult is a sweetened probiotic milk fermented with the bacteria strain Lactobacillus paracasei Shirota, isolated in the human intestine by Japanese scientist Minoru Shirota in the 1930s. It’s sold by Yakult Honsha, based in Tokyo and despite being a commercial success for decades in Japan and India, is virtually unheard of in the West (only first introduced to the US in 1999). The only place I’m sure I’ve seen it sold is in Little Tokyo. Despite having such a prestigious and rare ingredient, giving it the most limited in availability at CoCo, it’s quite skippable in my opinion. Can you spot the Yakult in this image?
The Matcha Milk Tea with Red Beans was honestly the flavor i was most excited to try. As you know by now, i drink a lot of matcha, and many cafes in the West cannot make a matcha that’s potable (or that should really even be called “matcha”). Thankfully, not only was Matcha Milk Tea with Red Beans well-crafted, it was far and away the best of the four. The flavor and consistency reminded me of the last time i ordered a scoop of red bean ice cream and a scoop of matcha ice cream together as a dessert at a Japanese restaurant. Just the right balance of bitter and sweet. Thoroughly Japanese. The red beans are very gritty and melt in your mouth. You’ll love it. Jocilyn approved.
The Triple Delight which is actually called “3 Guys” in the East, is so named as it comes with tapioca, soft grass jelly and pudding. If you like the more cloying Japanese/Korean style bubble teas, this will doubtless be your go-to drink. A black milk tea, it tastes exactly like graham crackers and honey. Which is to say, it’s probably too sweet. It’s also probably the most adventurous (that I’ve tried so far). The pudding actually makes it look like your slurping down a bat’s wing through a straw, but the pudding itself really doesn’t taste distinct from the rest of the tea. I think getting boba in this drink is totally unnecessary and doesn’t do anything for it. You will be buying the Triple Delight for the pudding and the flavor. I definitely liked it, but i guess i was hoping for a higher grade black tea.
Taro Milk Tea with Sago is known as Sago Taro Milk Tea in the East (apparently marketing holds that Westerners have a problem with double adjective titles). Taro is a common beloved bubble tea flavor and I was looking forward to reviewing this one despite the the fact that drinking this much lactose usually bothers me. The addition of the sago put it over the top. I’ve only really had sago in the huge clumpy rice ball variety and found that it didn’t agree with me. The sago you get in Taro Milk Tea with Sago is different. It has a delicious gritty jelly-like sweetness and it’s cute as a button! Tiny pellets of sago are slurped up the straw along side the tea like chia in a chia kombucha (which i will be needing after this review to reset my stomach). The flavor and consistency of the sago balances well with the common but fun taro milk tea. Highly recommended.
Fortunately, CoCo Fresh Tea & Juice doesn’t require you to have a diabetic attack to enjoy their product. At checkout you can choose various levels of sugar (0%, 30%, 50%, 70% or 100%) in your tea. The bubble tea options we’ve had in Ann Arbor to date have been all or nothing, for years reinforcing the divide in fidelity and level of tea snobbery between Ann Arbor and Windsor. Unless you’re going to drink just a few sips of bubble tea per hour, I recommend choosing one of these lower levels of sugar since it will be more gulpable and taste just as good.
One thing i disliked about CoCo Fresh Tea & Juice over others was their choice of different straw sizes for their various drinks and the fact that they will hand you the straw, forcing you to try and somehow recycle it or contribute to our single-use plastic dystopia. The cups themselves are recyclable, but will require you to carefully peel the top plastic away and discard it. Ugh. I have mixed feelings about promoting bubble tea culture due to its continued negative environmental impact.
If you’re in the neighborhood, please support this new huge corporate takeover.