All caffeinated teas found in the United States are imported, save for yaupon tea, which grows wild from North Carolina to East Texas. Technically, yaupon isn't a true tea since it does not come from the tea plant, but it brews in hot water like tea and has grown in popularity as a local source of caffeine.
Though yaupon seems like a new discovery in the beverage world, the plant actually has roots in Native American culture ,where it was often drunk in a purification ceremony. Now, it's served in some cafés and shops in Texas and is known as a regional specialty.
- Origin: North America along the Gulf and Atlantic coast, Texas, Florida, Oklahoma, and other Southern states
- Main Ingredient: Yaupon leaves
What Is Yaupon Tea?
Though it drinks like a tea, yaupon tea isn't a true, Camellia sinensis tea. Instead, think of yaupon tea as an herbal infusion, or tisane, though it does contain caffeine unlike most other herbal teas on the market. Yaupon comes from a type of holly, Ilex vomitoria to be exact, that grows in sandy soils found in the North American southern regions and along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. The berries of this plant are poisonous, but yaupon tea is made solely from the leaves.
Some think the whole yaupon holly plant is poisonous due to stories of ancient tribes drinking copious amounts of a beverage they called "black drink" as part of a spiritual ritual. This special brew was made very strong, with a lot of yaupon leaves, scorched and boiled until the liquid turned a deep brown, almost black. Tribesmen of the Caddo, Cherokee, Yuchi, Chickasaw, Muscogee, Choctaw and other indigenous peoples living in the southern areas of North America would drink this highly-caffeinated tea to the point of vomiting in order to "purify" and "cleanse" the body.
The name yaupon comes from the Siouan language, Catawban. It's a combination of the words tree and leaf. Sometimes the tea is called cassina thanks to the Timucua, another group Native American peoples that lived in, what we now call, Florida. The latter name isn't used as commonly as yaupon, and when seeking to buy the tea look for the traditional moniker.
Yaupon tea has an earthy, sometimes slightly grassy and herbal taste. The overall nuances of yaupon tea depend on how much the leaves were roasted, but the underlying profile is that of green tea or yerba mate. This mellow flavor makes it a great tea to sip anytime, especially when a gentle pick-me-up is needed. Many people also drink yaupon tea in the morning as a substitute for coffee.
How to Drink Yaupon Tea
To make yaupon tea the leaves need to be dried, and often roasted beforehand. This can be done in the oven at 350 degrees until the leaves turn the desired shade of brown. The more cooked the darker the tea will be and the deeper the flavor. The tea can also be made from fresh leaves, though the flavor of the drink will not be as strong.
Brew yaupon tea like any other herbal blend. Boil water and then pour over leaves or a tea bag, and let steep for five minutes. Unlike black, green and white teas, yaupon won't get tannic from brewing too long. It can even be re-steeped, though with each soaking the tea will get weaker. Yaupon is mainly drunk hot, but can also be served cold and over ice.
The only thing to remember is that too much of the tisane may cause a slight laxative effect and make one hyper with caffeine. The idea that it will make you vomit is more of a legend and today's commercial yaupon teas are safe for consumption.
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Buying and Storing
This specialty item can easily be found online. Or, if traveling in the southern states, look for it at grocery stores and at select cafes. It's not often made by a large producer, so seek out independent companies specializing in this regional product.
Dried, yaupon tea has the appearance of broken and crumbled dried leaves. Once steeped, the color variation depends on how the leaves were treated. Lighter roasting of the holly creates a tisane that is paler green, and once brewed the liquid is more green-gold.
Longer roasting makes the tea a deeper brown in color when steeped, with hints of dark green, similar to an oolong or green tea. Yaupon tea can also be dark roasted, which gives the leaves a deeper brown color and tends to make the tea more like ground coffee in texture. This version of yaupon tea will look more like the famous black tea when steeped in hot water.
Keep yaupon tea as any other tea. It should be in a sealed container in a dry, dark place. Once wet the properties of the leaves become activated and it won't stay fresh for later use. Moisture can also cause the leaves to mold.
Yaupon Tea Vs. Yerba Mate
Neither yaupon or yerba mate are actually teas, but they both are derived from a type of holly plant. Yerba mate is mainly found in South America and is a traditional drink in Argentina. Yaupon is also grown in warmer climates, but the holly bushes thrive in North America. Both of these plants contain a high amount of caffeine and have a similar flavor akin to green tea.