Tea Houses Bring ‘Vibrancy’ to Chapel Hill

Julia (Ya-Huei) Chiu started Cha House with her sister in 2018. The tea house serves a variety of flavors of milk tea and boba tea, along with light snacks. Photo credit: Elizabeth Rieth.

COMMUNITY

By Liz Rieth

Nestled between brick stores, bright flowers decorate Cha House on 318 W. Franklin St. Milk tea, brown-sugar boba tea, hot tea — it’s all offered at this tea house. 

The shop was started by Julia (Ya-Huei) Chiu and her sister. Born and raised in Taiwan, the sisters grew up working in a restaurant owned by their parents. From watching their parents, they were inspired to one day start their own business. Chiu’s American brother-in-law had the idea to start it overseas.

Their decision to serve tea stemmed from generations of cultural passion. The sisters’ grandparents drank hot tea every day, even in the summer.

“It’s the way that I grew up, just tea everywhere,” Chiu said. “Tea is just like water where I grew up.”

Its popularity in Taiwan only grew when boba tea was created there in the 1980s

With their idea in mind, they started to look for the right city for their tea house. Some locations already had too many boba shops while others lacked potential customers. Chapel Hill offered an ideal place — few existing tea shops and potential customers from the college and Asian population. 

In 2018, Cha House in Chapel Hill opened. Now they have two other locations in Raleigh and Cary.

Cha House is one of about four Asian tea houses in Chapel Hill, all of them competing for customers, but all working to bring quality tea to the area. 

Locally, Asian-owned tea houses are a recent development, said Chapel Hill Town Council member Hongbin Gu. Previously, one had to travel to larger metro areas, such as in New York or California, to find cold milk tea or boba tea. Now UNC students and town residents need only walk a few blocks from campus to find three bubble tea shops. 

Boba versus Bubble versus Milk Tea – What’s what?

The terms “boba tea” and “bubble tea” typically are used to refer to the same type of drink. However, Chiu said they can mean slightly different things. 

“Boba” refers to the chewy, tapioca pearls in the tea. “Bubble” refers to the frothy foam that is formed when you shake tea with milk. “Milk tea” is simply a milky tea beverage. 

Most tea houses use the words interchangeably, she said.  If you want to get specific on your order, you can order a bubble tea with boba. Or, just order a bubble tea or milk tea if you don’t want the tapioca pearls. 

Several of the local shops are franchises, like Möge Tee, which has over 300 stores worldwide. Others are locally owned, like Cha House.

Regardless, the tea houses benefit the area. 

“It serves community needs,” Gu said. “It brings diversity and vibrancy to our downtown and to the Chapel Hill community.”

Additionally, they reach the growing Asian community here, she said. North Carolina ranks third in the nation for Asian-American population growth, with Orange County hosting the state’s highest percentage — 8.1% — of Asian-origin residents. 

That growing population is part of what drew Chiu to start Cha House here. That, and a love for the community. When she visited, she “fell in love with this cute town.”

Chapel Hill has brought her tea house friendly customers, she said, and a place to call home.

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