Yaupon Tea, America's First Caffeinated Beverage
The US consumes 75% of the coffee grown on earth. Americans buy 146 billion cups per year. 33% of Americans under 45 spend more on coffee than they save for rainy days, like forced retirement. Without knowing, many pass by a free source of caffeine on the way to give more hard-earned money to a billionaire coffee magnate. The source of that free caffeine is the underappreciated yaupon holly plant.
Few remember that we have our own unique and excellent source of caffeine growing wild, from Florida north to Virginia and Maryland, from the east coast as far west as Texas and Oklahoma. Native Americans named the drink made from the yaupon holly tree cassina or asi. European settlers watched them drink it and called it Black Drink.
More About Yaupon and Its Cultural Roots from an Expert
The map below shows where yaupon holly grows in the wild. The archeological evidence of yaupon tea drinking dates back conservatively to 1000BC and has been found many hundreds of miles outside the plant's growing zones. This and that green dot on the map down in Mexico representing yaupon that was cultivated there in Aztec times, suggests that the pre-Columbian inhabitants of what is now the American South participated in a complex, far-reaching, and vibrant trading network long before Europeans arrived.
Yaupon Was Probably the Main Ingredient in The Black Drink, but Perhaps not the Only One.
The scientific name, Ilex vomitoria, is a bit of a puzzle, in no way reflecting the properties or the taste of the tea. It may refer to the poisonous berries. The mention of vomit in the name also may have originated in the stories early settlers told about its extreme ceremonial uses. Some now even believe the name was a plot in England's scientific circles to protect England's lucrative tea trade.
What we do know for certain is that the unfortunate name soured a lot of local enthusiasm for drinking yaupon tea. Wealthy landowners in the South wanted fashionable luxuries, including coffees and teas not named after vomit. Yaupon fell out of favor with the middle class, too, who didn't want to be caught drinking the same drink as the itinerant poor, indentured dirt farmers, and slaves.
During the Civil War, yaupon tea became popular again even among landed gentry because it was difficult to find anything else to drink. After a long and bloody war, Southerners must have associated yaupon tea with fighting, misery, starvation, the smell of death, and the taste of bitter defeat. Those with means returned to the luxuries of imported teas and coffees, flavors they doubtlessly grew up taking for granted, but now associated with all that was lost to them in war.
Yaupon became popular again during the Great Depression. After that, its use as a tea was all but forgotten except by native Americans who kept their traditions even during times of great hardship, and by some tough old souls on Ocracoke Island, North Carolina, where the tea has always been popular. Last time I checked I still could order up a yaupon sweet tea to wash down the excellent fresh seafood.
There was another short revival of yaupon tea in the 60's and 70's. At that time, folks were keenly rediscovering all sorts of herbs.
Right now, is a great time to resurrect this fine old uniquely American tradition for a new generation. Here is a chance to declare independence from foreign tea again, and at least cut back a little on all that foreign coffee-drinking.
Birds safely eat the beautiful red and yellow berries which are poisonous to humans. The male plants don't produce berries at all and are a much safer option to grow around little kids.
Due to popularity as an ornamental plant, many people living outside its growing zone may find it at their local plant nursery if not already mixed in with their existing landscaping. With a little care and know-how, a yaupon holly can make a great container tree for a deck or patio area or a gorgeous houseplant in a big sunny window.
Making yaupon tea is easy, but also an art. Once you try the basic recipe, you'll want to experiment. Tweak it by roasting the tea lighter or darker to suit your taste. Try adding more or less prepared tea to your pot, until it tastes just right. You might like roasting it dark and brewing it in a french press. I prefer icing it down in a big pitcher with a sprig of fresh rosemary. It all tastes great though!
Reasons to try Yaupon Tea
- Aside from the caffeine, the leaves are a natural source of theobromine the substance found in cocoa and chocolate. Yaupon is full of antioxidants and the good polyphenols. It also acts as an anti-inflammatory.
- Yaupon leaves have no tannins which can make strong regular tea taste bitter. That means you can boil it down or add as many leaves as you like, and still drink a smooth, mellow brew.
- If you have a soda machine, how about a soft drink version?
- Even if you have to buy the tea online, you're still helping support the families, livelihoods, and dreams of other hard-working Americans. Let's not trade helping neighbors for all the tea in China.
How to Make Yaupon Tea
I can't think of anything with poisonous leaves that easily might be mistaken for yaupon holly, but better safe than not. Ask an expert to confirm your id first. I wash the leaves thoroughly a couple of times with a drop of vinegar in the water. Even though I don't use commercial pesticides to garden, I' m paranoid enough about air pollution, germs, insects, bird poop- you name it.
When the leaves are clean and spun in the salad spinner, I toss them into my cast iron skillet or large wok, set the stove-top to a medium temperature and stir them around with a wooden spoon as they dry out, curl up, and turn golden. That is when I'm done. I transfer them immediately out of the hot pan into a clean bowl and keep stirring to cool them down rapidly. Toasting solves solubility issues. More caffeine transfers into the hot water.
Once cool, I break up any big bits, fill up my trusty tea ball with my freshly made yaupon tea inside, and place the tea ball into my empty teapot. Then I put the kettle on, pour boiling water over the tea ball, and let the tea steep for about five minutes give or take. Now I'll have a cup.
If I don't have somewhere to be, I'll keep drinking it throughout the morning. But if there is some left, I'll put that into the refrigerator in a glass container with a lid. I'll keep it for a couple of days. After that, I will feed it to a plant, but never to my dog. Theobromine is poison for her just like chocolate is.
By the way, you can drink tea from the leaves of any native Ilex, but only Ilex vomitoria and its cultivars contain significant levels of caffeine. As far as I know, yaupon is the only high caffeine-producing plant native to North America. That doesn't mean we aren't surrounded by others. We just don't know enough yet about the vast natural bounty that blesses all of us.