It seems like nearly every day, a new food & beverage takes on the diasporic niche, bringing long-missed-but-not-forgotten flavors to pockets of Asian Americana. From supply chain innovations making old-school, local products more accessible to the masses, to nostalgic takes on trendy seltzers, there are ever-growing ways to experience the evolution and joy of eating well. We asked Taiwanese American food blogger Carol Lee (@hungrycarol, @nycmunchkin) to profile powerhouse Olivia Chen, whose first interview with us was on behalf of a non-profit she co-founded, Project EMplify. This time, she joins us to talk about the most recent of her ventures, Twrl Milk Tea.
Co-founded by Olivia Chen and Pauline Ang, Twrl Milk Tea is a brand of plant-based milk teas based in the San Francisco Bay Area. The lineup includes classic flavor profiles — like original milk tea, hojicha roasted green tea, and jasmine milk tea — but with a nutritional upgrade, using ethically-sourced organic fair-trade tea and climate-friendly pea milk. The Asian American women co-founders have also imbued their business mission with their personal values: health, sustainability, and community. As working moms, for example, both were interested in more compelling alternatives for their coffee habit. And so they made their own: one can of Twrl organic black milk tea clocks in at 58 grams of caffeine, or approximately the amount of 1.25 cups of coffee. It’s also a truly instant product – whereas most “instant teas” actually invoke a whole brewing and flavoring process, theirs is canned and shelf-stable (read: perfect when you can’t sneak out of your Zoom meetings for a true boba run and to throw in your bag as a *treat* for later).
What really sets Twrl apart from both the made-to-order and shelf-stable milk tea markets is also their conscious decision to use pea milk. According to their website, pea milk uses 4x less carbon emissions than dairy milk, 85% less water than almond milk, and less fertilized than oat and soy milk combined. “We want to revolutionize the ready-to-drink tea industry,” Chen emphasized, “and we want it to be for the boba milk tea drinkers, the coffee drinkers, the tea drinkers who want a ‘better for you’ option without compromising taste.”
The founders, notably of Taiwanese and Hong Kong heritage (both places with milk tea renown of their own), were also conscious that they would need to evangelize a discerning audience: in San Francisco alone, there are reportedly 2.39 boba stores per square mile. Twrl may have had superior nutritional KPIs, but when it came down to it, how could a canned, shelf-stable product compete with the distinct creaminess of a freshly made milk tea drink?
Using nitro-infusion, apparently. “Before soft-launching Twrl Milk Tea in 2021,” their website reads, “we tested hundreds of formulations and tinkered obsessively with our manufacturing process before creating a delicious canned milk tea that tastes creamy, fresh, and smooth.
Canned sodas and carbonated drinks are typically infused with carbon dioxide (CO2), which create large bubbles that give you a “burping” sensation after drinking. Drinks infused with nitrogen gas, on the other hand, contain much smaller bubbles, resulting in a frothy, foam-like texture and silky mouthfeel. Nitro-infusion also acts as an organic preservative, lending a freshly brewed flavor to Twrl’s milk teas.”
“The grocery industry is open for innovation,” Chen emphasizes. “Milk tea is popular right now, and a new customer may not even be a regular milk tea drinker.” The milk tea genre, itself an innovation of two cultures, becomes all the more fascinating with experimentation. Chen recommends trying it as a custard base for tang yuan; for Bon Appetit, Darice Chang shares her preference for layering a can of Twrl milk tea with ice “before topping it off with cold brew for a twist on yuanyang coffee milk tea, inspired by the proliferation of Cantonese restaurants popping up in Taipei.”
To be clear, there’s nothing “wrong” with traditional milk tea preparation styles. Even the most decadent offerings on the market are great treats, and I will *always* support treating yourself. But I think what Twrl masters and delivers exceptionally well beyond its alternative nutritional profile is the convenience. In other words, they make it even easier to reach for a midday pick-me-up.
Which reminds me, it’s time for your daily pick-me-up. Go forth and treat yourself!
Follow Carol and her Chicago, New York, Bay Area, and (hopefully soon!) Taipei food recommendations at @hungrycarol and @nycmunchkin.
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