Yaupon Tea Is Trending for All the Right Reasons
Brightly caffeinated and sustainably grown, this native plant has deep ties to Indigenous America.
When we think about where our tea comes from, our minds might wander internationally—Chinese newlyweds conducting tea ceremonies, for instance, Indian street vendors pouring masala chai, or a couple of Brits enjoying a spot of afternoon tea.
But there happens to be a native tea variety growing in our very own backyard—that is, the U.S. South. If you haven’t yet heard of yaupon (pronounced “yo-pawn”), it’s likely because the plant, which was brewed by Indigenous Americans over a thousand years ago, had been largely abandoned for centuries. Thanks to the efforts of a few up-and-coming yaupon harvesters, however, the lesser-known tea is on its way to becoming our next sustainable superfood.
In October, the Whole Foods Market Trends Council predicted that yaupon will be a trending ingredient in 2023, as it’s been making its way into kombucha, cocktails, and matcha powder. The plant, which is actually a holly bush, is the only known caffeinated plant native to North America.
“People are surprised by how familiar it tastes,” says Abianne Falla, founder of CatSpring Yaupon, one of the first commercial suppliers of the crop, based in Cat Spring, Texas. “But they notice that it’s a lot smoother and less astringent. That’s because yaupon doesn’t have tannins, which are what people are usually trying to cut with sugar or milk.”
Falla says the brand’s Green variety mimics a Japanese green, the Medium Roast an oolong, and the Dark Roast a standard black tea. And because there are no tannins, you never have to worry about steeping for too long, which can turn other teas bitter. “We have a restaurant here in Austin, Dai Due, that does a four hour hot steep with the Black, and they’ll get almost four gallons of iced tea from one ounce of loose leaf,” Falla says.
The effects on the body are less intense than your average cup of coffee, with about 25 to 30 milligrams of caffeine per serving. Some theorize that the interaction of the caffeine and other amino acids in yaupon create a delayed release into your large intestine, rather than your stomach. “So you don’t get the spike and then the crash,” Falla says. “The anecdotal feedback we get most often is that it’s a focused, more mental boost than anything else.”
And then there are the health benefits. The nutritious brew has an antioxidant level similar to blueberries, and the same kinds of polyphenols as green tea. Plus, it’s high in rutin, a natural anti-inflammatory, as well as saponins, which act as natural cleansers.
Falla started to experiment with yaupon on her family ranch in 2011, as a historical drought swept through Texas. “In Cat Spring, we were losing hundred-year-old oak trees,” she explains. “Everything was dry and scorched earth, except for yaupon, and we were just a little intrigued.”
Falla had her doubts, of course, as the holly had always been maligned as a pesky weed. But, after doing some research, she learned of its health benefits, ran some taste tests, and became more familiar with its Indigenous legacy of consumption. “Virtually every tribe along the Gulf Coast—and even up the East Coast, in spots along the Outer Banks—had a tradition with yaupon, and it was traded all over what is now North America.”
So why had this elixir of health been neglected for so long? Referencing the studies of Christine Folch, Falla explains how the earliest historical record of yaupon drinking came from Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca, who passed through what’s now called Texas in 1542. He recounted how, during purification rituals, Native communities consumed yaupon as a “black drink,” which induced vomiting. Recent studies, however, have disproven yaupon’s emetic properties.
With the eradication and forced relocation of these communities, yaupon began to lose ground. “I’m a citizen of the Chickasaw nation, and we had a tradition with it in Mississippi, but after the Trail of Tears and the relocation to Oklahoma, it doesn’t really grow on our reservation there,” Falla says. “So, it’s largely been forgotten.”
The Spanish, though, loved the drink, and brought it back to Europe. Its European footprint spread. In 1789, Scottish botanist William Aiton gave yaupon its unfortunate scientific name: Ilex vomitoria. University of Florida applied ecologist Francis Putz believes such nomenclature stemmed from fear of competition, as Aiton was secretly employed by Ceylon tea merchants. The Tea Act of 1773 made clear how the British worked to keep the power of the tea trade intact. In the years to come, “yauponer” became a derogatory term, meaning you were too poor to afford imported teas or coffee.
During the antebellum era, there was a resurgence of consumption among enslaved people who, unable to obtain caffeine from tea or coffee, grew the yaupon shrub themselves. Yaupon “had always been the drink of the marginalized,” Falla says.
Perhaps one reason why this drink found its place on Whole Foods’ list, decades later, is because it’s conducive to sustainable harvesting. Cat Spring relies on wild growth, so the shrubs are watered by rain alone. Coffee, in comparison, can take up to 30 gallons of water in its cultivation. “And then there’s also the fact that it doesn’t have to get on a ship to get to North America,” Falla adds.
She sees a rising yaupon-drinking culture in and around Austin and hopes that it will garner national appeal. Beyond the benefits and storied history, the native ingredient is also quite versatile. At Hotel Emma in San Antonio, for example, yaupon makes its way into various pastries and crème brûlée. “We’ve had the chance to host a couple Outstanding in the Fields, and those chefs have done a yaupon-smoked hog, as well as yaupon-smoked chickpeas,” Falla says. In the cocktail realm, bartenders praise yaupon for its foamy tendencies, which are made possible by the high level of saponins.
Like most foods and drinks that make such buzzy lists, yaupon is nothing new. But now’s our chance, centuries later, to give it a fair shot.