First-ever Seattle Boba Fest brings businesses together for National Bubble Tea Day

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Photo courtesy of U District Seattle Partnership
Photo courtesy of U District Seattle Partnership

Thanks to the University District Partnership, 18 businesses along the Ave saw a boom in business last Saturday thanks to the celebration of National Bubble Tea Day at the first-ever Seattle Boba Fest. Festivities included special deals at the cafés and teahouses, information to learn about the drink, and a photo booth.

Learning experience
Boba Fest served as the perfect excuse for bubble tea fanatics to indulge in exciting one-time offerings du jour, but it also gave first-timers and boba skeptics the opportunity to learn about the Taiwanese style of tea.

While boba is a favorite topping for bubble tea, the term is somewhat colloquially used for the drink itself. These pearls of tapioca, brown sugar, and water have a smooth-chewy texture that slows the drinker to a pace of pure enjoyment. Though the pearls sink to the bottom of the drink, boba straws are just wide enough to get a bite with every sip.

Boba's texture can be intimidating for first-timers who are unfamiliar with solids in their liquids, but the University District Partnership offered introductory information and a choose-your-own adventure to newcomers via a "How to Boba" guide.

Under the title, it read: "New to boba? Have no fear! Whether you try one of the featured teas in this guide or want to choose your own adventure, ordering boba is fun and easy — the possibilities are endless!"

Volunteers and staff offered the guide at the Partnership's tent, while additional signage and balloons directed visitors along, reminiscent of the U District light rail opening's food walk last October.

Seattle's University District is becoming a go-to neighborhood for boba regulars, as it is now home to about two dozen cafés offering or even specializing in the drink. While even more locations exist in the Chinatown-International District, the Partnership saw an opportunity to boost business at its own boba shops in honor of the fourth National Boba Day.

In the business of bubbles
From the base of the Ave (University Way NE) at 42nd Street to the final participating café just north of 52nd Street, a total of 18 businesses provided original recipes and offered deals from noon to 6:00 p.m. Even after the event's scheduled end, lines persisted outside of Don't Yell at Me tea house, Oasis Tea Zone, and others.

At Oasis, the special was a unique take I had to get my hands on: mango lemonade with popping boba. Oasis specializes in mango flavor, and I swear by it. Popping boba was something I had never tried, though, so in the spirit of the occasion, I went for it.

While normal boba is ultra-chewy, popping boba is a mouthwide event, like champagne mixed with Gushers. The caviar-like pearls delightfully popped easily between one's teeth, exploding into an even more mango-flavored liquid.

Other shops offered equally fun specials that featured ingredients like lychee (at Boba Gem Tea House) or cheese foam topping (at Don't Yell at Me), as well as specialty teas like hojicha at Meraki Tea Bar, and flavors like ube (purple yam), as seen at Brooklyn Avenue NE's Sip House. Meanwhile, Sweet Alchemy Ice Creamery and Cold Plate infused boba pearls into its dessert menus.

Some of these ingredients added to the adventure or, depending on the visitor, maybe too much unfamiliarity. That's why the University District Partnership, in collaboration with The Stranger, included detailed instructions on how to order a custom boba drink that fits your preferences. You can always do this at a boba café.

Guests of the participating businesses of the day ranged from professional boba-top poppers — the drink is commonly sealed off with plastic, which you can do yourself at the Ave's self-serve café, Boba Up! — to definite skeptics, most of whom seemed dragged along by a boba-loving friend or two.

With the option to craft your own boba drink, from base tea to milk to flavors and toppings, these first-timers were able to find some comfort in the endeavor.

"I just always thought that these black little balls were... so scary. Now that I'm here, I think I could get used to it someday," said Deborah Barbeau, a first-year student at the UW. She gestured to a friend, saying, "This one made me buy it."

Weary or unbothered, droves of students and visitors perused the University District all afternoon with a variety of brightly colored bubble teas. People were all grins at the photo booth and beyond, enjoying a "friend date" like Deborah or maybe flying solo on their bubble-filled journey.

As stated in the University District's "How to Boba" guide, the options for a customized boba experience are endless. Check out the website for more information on the businesses that participated, or take your own U District boba tour for a refreshing and potentially adventurous tea time.

Find the University District Partnership at, and for a limited time, find more info on this event at Add yourself to the U District mailing list via the latter link for updates on future events.