Another Unlikely Pandemic Shortage: Boba Tea
The popular drink’s main ingredient, tapioca pearls, could soon be in short supply because of delays in unloading cargo ships from Asia.
One boba distributor said supplies weren’t expected to return to normal until summer.Credit…Kelsey McClellan for The New York Times
By Kellen Browning
A panic erupted on the West Coast this week. Over a drink.
It happened when beverage aficionados learned that tapioca, the starch used to make the sweet, round, chewy black bubbles — or pearls — that are the featured topping in the popular boba tea drink, was in short supply.
“I was shocked,” said Leanne Yuen, a longtime boba drinker and a student at the University of California, Irvine. “What am I going to do now?”
The impending boba shortage is yet another sign of how the pandemic has snarled global supply chains, upended industries and created scarcities of goods from toilet paper and ketchup to electronics. In this case, a surge of pent-up demand for products assembled abroad, coupled with a shortage of workers due to coronavirus cases or quarantine protocols, has caused a monthslong maritime pileup at ports in Los Angeles and San Francisco and left ships delivering goods from Asia — including tapioca — waiting out at sea.
Boba or bubble tea, a drink that can be made with milk or fruit-flavored green or black tea, originated in Taiwan and has grown in popularity and prominence in the United States throughout the 2000s. Boba suppliers in the San Francisco Bay Area who are running low on tapioca said their shipments of fully formed boba came from Taiwan, while supplies of cassava root, which is used to make tapioca, came from Thailand and islands in the Pacific Ocean.
“It’s all being held up at the docks,” said Arianna Hansen, a sales representative for Fanale Drinks, which is based in Hayward, Calif., and supplies boba to thousands of stores around the country. Ms. Hansen said that shipments had been backed up for several months, and that the company’s existing stockpile of tapioca was running dangerously low.
“It’s definitely been frustrating — some people have been upset with us, but at the same time it’s not really our fault,” Ms. Hansen said.
There’s no sign that the ship delays will abate anytime soon. The number of container ships waiting at anchor to dock in Los Angeles or Long Beach peaked at 40 in February, according to data from the Marine Exchange of Southern California. That declined to 19 ships on Thursday, still a far cry from the usual zero or one ship that was the norm prepandemic, said Kip Louttit, the exchange’s executive director.
Massive cargo ships can take a week or longer to unload, Mr. Louttit said. Five additional ships are drifting out at sea, because there is no room to fit them in the bay. He said it was a nearly unprecedented backup; vessels have not had to drift while waiting since 2004.
The situation is similarly cramped in San Francisco, where 20 ships are waiting at anchor and 19 more are “cruising around” offshore, compared with the usual eight or nine at anchor, said Capt. Lynn Korwatch, the executive director of the area’s marine exchange.
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