Whimsy may be on the way out with cocktail menus, but that doesn’t mean guests aren’t looking for beverages that lean heavily on experience, fun, and novelty. While craft cocktails have been getting endless ink for the renaissance that’s turning bar culture from bastions of bedlam into refined, artistic spaces, there’s a growing market for drinks that are versatile enough to please an entire spectrum of expectations: something unique, something with a healthy perception, and something that will make the perfect Instagram photo to share with their friends.

At Boba 7, nestled in the back of Thai restaurant Soi 7 in downtown Los Angeles, self-titled “mastermind” and founder, Elton Keung, is taking boba—or bubble tea, as it’s also called—to a new level by creating the first speakeasy boba bar in the U.S., and Keung claims, the world.

Keung, who is 26, uses a mix of new technology and simple methods to create his tea—by applying classic tenets of mixology to tea steeped in an electric infusion machine for speed and the ability to control the exact strength of each beverage. After brewing each drink to its made-to-order strength, Keung adds the freshly boiled tapioca balls that comprise the “bubbles” in boba, and mixes in the beer of choice. All alcoholic offerings run from $6 to $8, with a discount available to those who spread the word on social media.

While he says he would like to do liquor cocktails in the future, he’s weighing the costs of getting the necessary permits for the store, which is still young at 4 years old. His experiments with soaking the tapioca balls in different alcohols yielded too much waste and too thin a margin for him to consider that particular route moving forward, so he says that once Boba 7 does add liquor, mixology will be done in a more classical way.

Luckily, his unique signature items and build-your-own option have been enough to keep the bar financially successful despite having to avoid the hard stuff.

His personal favorite is the unlikely but highly popular #GreenTeaHeineken, which is available with special honey tapioca upon request and includes an entire bottle’s worth of its namesake beer.

More than anything, as the hashtagged title suggests, these drinks are targeted toward Millennial consumers with a taste for experience and a flair for interesting visuals and unexplored flavor profiles. Keung says his audience is one that has been influenced by the creativity of the craft cocktail movement, but is looking for a more casual experience.

“We provide a much more authentic experience without the bourgeois feel that craft cocktail places tend to serve,” he says. “Our clientele tends to be young and hip people that crave individuality.”

The West Coast phenomena of boba tea is just starting to put down roots in other regions of the U.S., hinting that there may be sizeable growth opportunities in the future.

“I think boba is a cultural phenomenon that has quietly and slowly integrated itself into our world, and it’s extremely popular among young people,” Keung says.

In serving alcoholic boba, Keung is aiming to take boba from an intriguing experience to a coming-of-age experience, expanding the drink’s clientele and popularity across broader demographics while still keeping his sights on the niche market.

The ability to choose between alcoholic and non-alcoholic options, along with providing a customizable sweetness level for each order, gives Keung the benefit of appealing to both those seeking a decadent evening option and others who want a lighter, healthy mid-afternoon pick-me-up.

By offering a flexible and fascinating beverage, Boba 7 is giving customers a reason to get the word out on social media, turning customers into an effective marketing team in their own right, and promoting the popularity of this emerging beverage nationwide.

Emily Byrd

Industry News, Menu Innovations, NextGen Casual