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Gathers Tea Bar Brings a “New-School” Approach to Boba with Handcrafted Drinks

Lisa Futterman
A photo of Victor Lei and Peter Li.
Longtime friends Victor Lei, left, and Peter Li paired up to create Gathers Tea Bar on the Near West Side. Credit: Lisa Futterman for WTTW

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There are dozens of bubble tea bars in the Chicago area, but Gathers Tea Bar stands out for its high-quality ingredients and handcrafted drinks, many of which are brewed with precise specification to order. The busy shop offers an ever-expanding menu of milk teas, tea lattes, and fruit teas created with the same attention to detail as a carefully composed restaurant dish. Gathers is akin to a local artisan cafe, rather than a larger chain.

Its uniqueness is a product of its two owners, combining the intense focus of Peter Li with the restaurant experience of Victor Lei. Li has a degree in accounting, but swerved from that career in 2019 to open Gathers on Taylor Street in Chicago’s Near West Side. Lei was working in the culinary world when he joined the team in 2022.

The pair were longtime friends who grew up in Chicago’s Chinatown. As teenagers, they used to hang out at Tea Leaf Cafe on Wentworth Avenue, an iconic Taiwanese milk tea bar.

“We’re ABCs – American Born Chinese ... We are born and raised here. We are normalized into American culture,” says Li. “It’s like a generational gap: old-school versus new-school.”

Bubble tea originated in Taiwan in the 1980s, and milk tea with boba – chewy tapioca pearls made from cassava root – came to the United States in the late ’90s. The drinks, traditionally made from various black teas shaken with powdered non-dairy creamer, are sweetened, iced, and sealed with a plastic top to order. A pointy, fat straw allows customers to pop the plastic top and suck out the boba.

The pearls must be carefully prepared daily – boiled then steeped in brown sugar syrup – to create what’s known as “QQ” texture, which is springy, bouncy, and toothy. Li says they cook a fresh batch every two hours to maintain that prized texture.

That extra devotion to freshness carries over to the drinks themselves. Whereas many of the chain shops that exist today highlight outlandish flavors and load their drinks with sugar and artificial syrups, Gathers celebrates the tea itself.

“We started off as a traditional Taiwanese tea shop, but we try to bridge cultures and bring in teas from all over the world,” says Li. They serve matcha and hojicha from Japan, chai from India, and tea from Thailand alongside the traditional fruit and milk teas, all adapted to their style.

When Li traveled to the east and west coasts and tried bubble teas in New York and California – “the big hubs for bubble tea” – he noticed the teas were brewed very strong, for an undiluted, tea-forward flavor.

“It changed me,” he says, and his brewing style changed too. Each tea, sourced directly from Asia, has its own optimal brewing temperature and ideal extraction time to which Gathers adheres in order to ensure the ideal flavor. The shop prepares trendy matcha, the vibrant green powdered tea associated with Japan, in the traditional way, mixing it with a fine bamboo whisk in order to properly aerate the tea and prevent it from clumping. Li has gone through six different sources for matcha in the five years since he opened to find the right kind.

Hands pouring matcha into a plastic boba tea cup
Matcha from Gathers Tea Bar. Credit: Lisa Futterman for WTTW

Gathers doesn’t just focus on traditional teas, however. House and seasonal specials have included a banana milk tea recipe based on a Taiwanese favorite, but with added brown sugar to create a rich Bananas Foster effect. A popular pumpkin latte incorporated not just autumnal spices but also actual pumpkin puree for a true squash flavor. The current spring roster of specials includes a mango matcha boba topped with fresh cream; the vibrant green, orange, and white layers taste even fresher than they look.

Other differences at Gathers are more subtle but equally impactful. For delivery orders, the team waits until the moment the drink is picked up to add ice in order to avoid dilution. The recipes also take a lot of thought, says Lei: the process is similar to creating a restaurant menu item.

“When we’re conceptualizing a dish, we factor in a lot of different components as far as the texture, the mouth feel, the balance of the sweetness, salinity, and acidity. That's where it becomes a little challenging,” Lei says. “A lot of times we go down that rabbit hole and we're wondering, ‘Do people really notice that?’ But we are paying attention to every minor detail.”

Gathers gets very busy, with students and hospital workers from nearby UIC flooding the shop for brown sugar boba and nutty black sesame matcha lattes the moment the doors open. Li has an eye on opening more locations in the future, but plans to grow carefully so as not to sacrifice the quality and hospitality that is a trademark of the team.

“Within a month of moving into this space [in May 2023], we outgrew it. It’s a packed house on weekends,” says Lei.

In order to accommodate the crowds, they installed kiosks where people can place their orders and pay – although they miss the direct interaction with customers.

“We just love what bubble tea is. It’s part of American society,” says Li. “There are certain things that are trends that will probably die out. [But bubble tea] is here to stay.”