Arts restaurant review

For the love of bubble tea!

Yi Fang makes bubble tea the real way: without milk powder, syrup, or fructose, but with tons of fresh fruit

9937 yifang
Selection of fruit teas and egg pancakes
Teddy Schoenfeld –The Tech

Yi Fang Taiwan Fruit Tea
Bubble Tea, $$
215 Newbury St. (First Floor)
Boston, MA 02116

Sunday – Thursday 11 a.m. – 9 p.m.
Friday – Saturday 11 a.m. – 9:30 p.m.

Bubble tea originated in Taiwan and was brought to the U.S. in the 1990s. Back then, bubble tea meant real, brewed tea with tapioca pearls and milk or fresh fruit. It was sold from streetside carts or night market stalls, and the drinks were simple, refreshing, and traditional. Today, bubble tea shops are ubiquitous in cities with large Taiwanese populations like Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco. In recent years, its popularity has exploded in Boston too — there are now nine shops that sell bubble tea in the span of three blocks of Newbury Street in Back Bay — but most of today’s drinks are different from the bubble tea of 30 years ago. Shops figured out that using milk powder, fructose, and syrups would keep their costs low and margins high, and most consumers couldn’t actually taste the difference. In fact, many drinks sold by bubble tea shops today don’t contain any tea at all and are full of ingredients designed to last on the shelf for weeks.

But one of Boston’s shops takes a more traditional approach. Tucked away in a multi-use building set back from the bustling Newbury sidewalk, Yi Fang Taiwan Fruit Tea has a menu that’s markedly different from the other shops in the area. Instead of blended drinks with gimmicky names, Yi Fang offers tea flavored with traditional Chinese fruits like green plum and wintermelon. Their small kitchen isn’t cluttered with syrups and powders. Instead, the space is taken up by a refrigerator filled with colorful pre-cut fruit. Chinese ballads play from the speakers. The walls display a hand-painted depiction of the harvesting of Sun Moon Lake tea, which Yi Fang customers can either order by itself or in a number of milk teas.

The shop is co-owned by three business partners, but one in particular has an interesting story. Ivy, who asked not to be identified by last name, has never actually lived in Boston but was motivated to open the shop because of her own experience drinking Yi Fang’s bubble tea — the New York shop impressed her so much that it inspired her to open a location of her own. She was struck by Yi Fang’s devotion to both quality and tradition: “[Yi Fang is] more premium than the other brands that are offered out there,” Ivy says. The fact that New York already had a location didn’t stop her. Instead, she set her sights on Boston, where she identified a young population with limited exposure to bubble tea. In 2019, she signed contracts authorizing construction to begin, but the Newbury location’s opening was delayed almost two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since its doors opened in June of last year, though, Ivy’s Yi Fang has thrived.

Ivy visits Boston once every few months but corresponds with her managers daily. Most of her work concerns administrative duties like payroll, accounting, and forecasting and ordering ingredients, a complex process that takes place six months to a year in advance. She is also in charge of releasing new drinks and products to customers. “Yi Fang is more traditional than other brands,” Ivy remarks. “I want to keep things simple — right on brand with what corporate is offering.”

In reality, what Ivy is able to offer is already constrained. Any drink sold at a Yi Fang location must first go through an extensive vetting process in a Taiwanese tasting lab. A dedicated team invents, tinkers with, and tastes drinks, perfecting each one before it’s approved for in-store sale. Drinks also need to pass Taiwanese food and beverage safety laws, which are generally much stricter than those in the States. As a result, every drink sold at a Yi Fang location around the world is made the same way, whether in Sweden or Singapore. Once a drink has been approved, Ivy’s staff then tries each drink and deliberates, and if they give the go-ahead, it’s released.

Many of Yi Fang’s ingredients are grown and manufactured in Taiwan, but some are  sourced from all around the world: matcha powder from Kyoto, passionfruit from Vietnam, cocoa from Spain. Sometimes, Yi Fang’s use of real fruit is off-putting to customers who are so used to powders and purees. For example, instead of the usual taro powder or purée that’s used to make taro milk tea, Yi Fang’s taro latte comes full of chunks of real taro, causing some customers to assume that the drink isn’t blended enough or was made incorrectly. “Most of the places you would go to, it would be powder-based,” Ivy explained. Because of their devotion to quality ingredients and freshness, Yi Fang’s prices are higher than almost all of their competitors. A medium drink with no toppings is usually between six and seven dollars, while prices for lower-end bubble tea can be two dollars cheaper. “Some customers come in and think Yi Fang is too expensive,” says Ivy. “That’s fine. I’m not really trying to compromise just because the other shops are.”

Ivy’s resolute mindset is reflected in everything Yi Fang sells. Their flagship product, Yi Fang Fruit Tea, is filled with tons of fresh fruit slices and purées, including passion fruit purée and seeds, pineapple jam, and sliced oranges and apples. Instead of using generic green tea for the base of their fruit tea like most bubble tea shops, Yi Fang uses Songboling Mountain Tea, a cold-brewed oolong from central Taiwan, which gives the drink a more nuanced flavor. Their wintermelon latte offers an original spin on a normal milk tea, with tastes of the refreshing, mild melon accentuating but not overpowering the drink. Ivy notes that the drink is very popular despite customers’ general unfamiliarity with wintermelon. The matcha latte, which uses high-end matcha from Uji, Kyoto, is rich and creamy. The drink pairs well with miniature pearls, which add a slight sweetness to the drink. And their peach fruit tea, filled with sliced peaches, is like taking a bite into a ripe peach itself. As of now, the only non-drink item on the menu is a bag of fluffy Taiwanese egg pancakes, which can be ordered filled with custard or miniature tapioca pearls. According to Ivy, just the smell of them gets people in the door. She said a new dessert should be coming out soon, but it’s been hard to get approved — food items are under even tighter scrutiny than drinks.

In a world of powders, fake sugars, and bad bubble tea, Yi Fang Taiwan Fruit Tea refuses to take shortcuts. If you want a smoothie made with Oreo, prefer your drink topped with popping bubbles, or expect seasonal drinks to mean things like gingerbread smoothies and eggnog slush, look elsewhere. But if you want simple, traditional drinks made with intense attention to detail, then this is the place for you. When you come to Yi Fang Taiwan Fruit Tea, their website tells you exactly what to expect: “old-fashioned Taiwanese premium tea.”