Discover North America’s only native caffeine source, nearly lost to time and conquest.
The Timucuan men sat in the public square sipping a hot, dark-colored liquid from carved seashell cups, discussing the weather, crops, and the latest news about their enemies upriver. They’d been at it for hours, and were buzzed from round after round of the caffeinated decoction. Morning passed into early afternoon like it had on a thousand other days in the Southeast, except for one thing: There were Frenchmen watching.
Jacques le Moyne de Morgues, a French artist and a member of Jean Ribault’s expedition to the New World, depicted himself and his puffy-sleeved comrades in a sketch that he created about 1564 (see Page 85). This is the year he and 300 French Huguenots established the short-lived Fort Caroline near modern-day Jacksonville, Florida. To cement their new friendship, the local Timucua tribe offered the Frenchmen shells containing what Europeans called “black drink” — a dark-colored brew made by boiling and straining the leaves of the native yaupon holly (pronounced “yo-pawn”), and then shaking the resulting liquid until foamy. “It strengthens and nourishes the body, and yet does not fly to the head,” Le Moyne observed with awe. It was likely his first dose of caffeine.
Europeans in the 16th century often started the day with a mug of milk curdled with alcohol. When imported stimulants from the colonies became available, such as Chinese tea, African coffee, and South American cocoa and yerba maté, Europeans quickly gave up drinking alcoholic beverages all day long. Briefly, they also traded yaupon from the Colonies under the moniker “Carolina Tea.”
Fast forward to present day. Although yaupon’s caffeine content is more than black tea but less than coffee (similar to the now-popular yerba maté), few Americans realize they could be drinking something grown closer to home.
“I couldn’t really figure it out,” says Bryon White. “I thought maybe it didn’t taste good. I thought there had to be a reason people weren’t drinking it today.” When White and his brother Kyle founded Yaupon Brothers American Tea Co. in 2012, they were the first to sell yaupon since the 1970s, when a small café closed on the Outer Banks off the coast of North Carolina. The yaupon industry had lingered in this string of barrier islands from the days of the American Revolution. Later, during the Civil War, islanders supplied the caffeinated plant to cities blocked from importing tea and coffee. By 1903, though, a visitor to the islands was surprised to find an old man still at work layering yaupon leaves with hot stones in a barrel, a roasting process passed down from Native Americans. “I was under the impression the business was as extinct as the dodo,” Herbert Hutchinson Brimley wrote.
Yaupon the plant, on the other hand, was, and still is, easy to find. It grows abundantly on the sandy coastal plains from Virginia to Florida, and west to Texas. The dense evergreen tree has a tendency to stay low, which makes it a popular landscaping ornamental. With shiny holly leaves and red berries, yaupon is a splash of Christmas cheer in the winter landscape or, to Native Americans, a symbol of continual renewal.
“Yaupon is the quintessential hedge plant of the South, so you see it absolutely everywhere,” says White. “I had a big hedgerow of it on my property. I always liked it because you can’t kill it. It’s drought tolerant, salt tolerant, and it doesn’t freeze.” His company is essentially wildcrafting the 72 acres they manage in central Florida, with no spraying or fertilizing, and without disturbing the wild habitat. He recommends that new commercial growers plant yaupon “right out in the woods” too, rather than clear-cutting to make space. For White, it’s an opportunity to start a commercial industry the right way. “What we don’t want is to see what happened with yerba maté repeat with yaupon,” he says.
Yaupon (Ilex vomitoria) and yerba maté (Ilex paraguariensis) are closely related hollies with similar caffeine content, methods of preparation, and drinking culture. Why yerba maté flourished into a mainstream beverage now available at many health food stores while yaupon fell into obscurity has puzzled researchers as far back as 1891. “The reason for its disuse is hard to discover,” mused Edwin Moses Hale in his book on the history of yaupon. “The use of maté has not decreased from the time of the conquest of South America by Europeans.”
As Le Moyne enjoyed his first caffeine hit in Florida in 1564, the Spanish in Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay were discovering the energizing effects of yerba maté. By 1629, Spaniards had adopted yerba maté to such an extent that every South American indigenous man was conscripted into six months of labor harvesting wild stands. Later, men were forced to work cultivated fields as slaves to send the dried and roasted leaves to Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, and other colonial cities. By the early 1900s, when Brimley declared yaupon to be as dead as the dodo, yerba maté’s export topped 40,000 metric tons. Today, yerba maté makes up a $1 billion industry and continues to struggle with labor rights issues. It’s easy to understand why Bryon White wants something different for the future of yaupon.
The Cherokee, Natchez, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek Confederacy, and about 20 other tribes as far east as the Lower Mississippi Valley were all known to consume black drink. Many of them received their shipments of yaupon via extensive trade networks. “Yaupon was moving along the same path as people trading shell beads and salt — there was a whole network of people,” explains Thomas E. Emerson, an archaeologist specializing in the North American Eastern Woodlands.
Emerson believes these trade routes were established over 1,000 years ago, when all roads ended at the ancient metropolis of Cahokia near modern-day St. Louis. Here, Emerson found fragments of ceramic mugs decorated with wave-like spirals. Absorbed into the porous ceramic was residue from a liquid consumed in about the year 1050. By comparing the ratio of theobromine to caffeine, Emerson’s team was able to identify the liquid as black drink. “If it’s as common in Cahokia as we believe, that would mean hundreds of pounds of leaves being brought in every year from the Gulf Coast. That’s impressive,” says Emerson.
Yaupon might have been consumed daily — “I guess it’s like farmers going to the local café to drink coffee, so, in that context, it’s a social drink,” says Emerson — but it also had a special role in ritual purification ceremonies. After passing the shells around a few times, the men, comfortably seated on benches, leaned over, clasped their bellies, and, in Le Moyne’s illustration, vomited in a curling profusion of inked lines between their bare feet. Then they drank more, and did it again, and again, for the rest of the morning.
Accounts of similar meetings were sent back to William Aiton, the director of the British Royal Botanic Gardens. In 1789, he christened yaupon with the scientific name Ilex vomitoria. But the name is misleading. Drinking yaupon tea won’t cause an upset stomach, unless you want it to. “The vomiting is a learned habit,” explains Emerson. “You can induce yourself to vomit just by drinking a whole bunch of warm water.” Typically, the Timucuan men would drink up to 6 steaming gallons at a black drink ceremony, encouraging those of the highest rank to chug more by singing a long note called the yohullah.
In addition to drinking yaupon tea, for ceremonies the men would fast and spend time in sweat lodges to cleanse their minds and bodies. Such purification was a preparation for embarking on new endeavors, making war with another tribe, or making a big decision, such as what to do about the oddly garbed strangers who just dropped the news they were building a fort.
The new friendship consecrated by black drink soured within a year. In August, 1565, the Spanish invaded the French colony. Le Moyne escaped back to France, but the local tribes were trapped in conflicts that would last the next 300 years. By 1595, the Timucuan population had shrunk by 75 percent. By 1700, they were all but gone. During the 1800s, any remaining tribes in the area were forcibly removed and marched to Oklahoma on the infamous Trail of Tears.
While the near extinction of a people and their culture also marked the near oblivion of yaupon tea, it might be time for a new beginning.
“It’s switching over from drinking something that’s wholly unsustainable and imported from other countries to something totally sustainable, low carbon footprint, and local,” says Bryon White. “That’s a good thing.”
Single serving, hot: Place 1 tea bag or 1 teaspoon of loose-leaf yaupon per cup of near-boiling water in a mug. Steep 4 to 6 minutes.
Multiple servings, iced: Add 3 tea bags or 1 tablespoon of yaupon to 3 quarts of near-boiling water, and let steep for 10 minutes. Strain the loose-leaf tea from the liquid or remove tea pouches before putting the tea in the refrigerator to cool. Use 6 pouches or 2 tablespoons of yaupon leaves to make a more concentrated brew if serving immediately over ice.
Place 1 teaspoon of loose-leaf yaupon into a reusable pod for a single-serve coffee maker, or place 1 teaspoon per cup of beverage desired into a cone-style coffee maker.
Place 1 tea bag or 1 teaspoon of loose-leaf yaupon per cup of water into a transparent pitcher. Let sit for 3 to 5 hours in direct sunlight.
Add 3 tea bags or 1 tablespoon of yaupon to a 3-quart pitcher of water. Store in the refrigerator overnight, and enjoy the next day.
Lindsay Gasik is a self-described fruit-hunting geek and horticultural tour guide in Malaysia and Thailand. Follow her at Year Of The Durian.
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