There is a “hip” trend happening in the brewer and sipper world. Yerba Mate is steadily taking on the tea scene. This South American rainforest holly tree produces a leaf that has been brewed to tea for centuries; a healthy caffeine alternative to coffee. But while yerba mate is getting all the attention, it’s cousin, yaupon – indigenous to the United States, is virtually ignored.
Yaupon has thrived in the Southeastern United States for centuries. Native Americans from what is now Texas to Florida, Lousiana to Virginia, brewed “the black drink” for use in pre-battle ceremonies to give them energy, and rightly so. Yaupon is the only indigenous plant out of the 20,000-plus species native to North America to have a significant amount of naturally occurring caffeine.
Yaupon is so prevalent that in many Southern states – Florida being one – it is considered a weed plant and destroyed as a nuisance. In other parts of the South, it is crafted ornamentally in landscaping.
Nutritionally, yaupon is almost identical to yerba mate. Both hold 24 vitamins and minerals, 15 amino acids, and abundant antioxidants, as well as caffeine, theophylline, and theobromine. The latter are popular “pick-me-ups” also found in tea, coffee, and chocolate. In fact, some say a cup of yaupon tea combines the stimulant strength of coffee, the nutritional benefits of tea and the “euphoria factor” of chocolate.
Unlike traditional teas – all of which are imported into the United States from China, Sri Lanka, India, Argentina and beyond, yaupon has a very low tannin content so it drinks strong like coffee but without the bitterness. And unlike coffee, yaupon isn’t oily so it isn’t prone to acid forming. This facet of the leaf makes it much less likely to cause stomach acid and caffeine “jitters.”
Given its wild presence in the American Southeast, one would imagine that yaupon would be exploding into the coffee shops, tea rooms, and marketplaces across the United States. Given the move toward natural foods and herbal teas, one would think that yaupon would be a staple in houses that respect holistic, herbal and all-natural products. Additionally, in an economic climate where jobs need to be created, one would almost bet that this industry – what with “free” raw material – would be exploding into the marketplace. But it's not.
Yaupon, it appears, has been forgotten. While the South American yerba mate has become popular with the in-crowd of the brew-and-sipper sphere, yaupon has been stunningly ignored. This is troubling because, in the area where yerba mate is produced and harvested, the rainforest is under siege. Where the harvesting of the Ilex paraguariensis (the Latin name for the yerba mate plant) necessarily needs to be certified as not having damaged the rainforest, harvesting yaupon is not a threat to the environment and comes from right here in the United States.
Ironically, back in the beginning of the 19th Century, yaupon tea was so popular in the American Southeast that it was not only a staple in every Southern household, but smart business people were starting to export the product to the tea capitols in Britain, France and even as far away as Asia. This industry was sidelined in the mid-1800s by the US Civil War and, to date, has never recovered.
So how do we right the wrong that has been done to the spectacular plant that is the yaupon holly plant? How do we restore yaupon’s nobility in the tea world and amongst the brew-and-sipper community? While the answer is simple it will take some outside the box thinking and just a wee bit of unselfish effort. We have to try it and talk about it.
I suggest trying yaupon tea that is wild harvested and all-natural. Once you taste the different ways it can be roasted and refined – and once you understand the nutritional benefits of yaupon tea and realize you can have all of that and a caffeine source – I guarantee you will understand why this forgotten plant should be restored to its rightful place on top of the tea market!