Could This Plant You’ve Never Heard of Could Replace Your Coffee Habit?

New York City’s coffee habit is a luxury that requires importation from faraway growers, but the caffeinated buzz it provides is a testament to the history of Cahokia, the largest known Indigenous settlement in the present-day United States. The plant, one of only two caffeinated plants native to North America, was shipped by Cahokians hundreds of miles from the Gulf and South Atlantic coasts to the St. Louis metro area. There, the leaves were brewed into a “black drink” downed before important religious or political events. Early European colonists also took to the beverage, even sending it back to the homeland as “Carolina tea,” and American revolutionaries drank yaupon in protest of British tea taxes.

As competition from imported tea and coffee intensified, white settlers started to associate drinking yaupon with negative racial stereotypes. In 1789, a British scientist gave the plant the unflattering scientific name Ilex vomitoria based on reports of Indigenous rituals involving the drink. Abianne Falla, cofounder and CEO of CatSpring Yaupon in Texas and a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, said yauponer eventually became a derogatory term of poverty and backwardness.

Bryon White, cofounder and CEO of Yaupon Brothers American Tea Co., is one of yaupon’s biggest boosters. He discovered the beverage potential of brewing yaupon leaves like black tea and found an agreeably earthy flavor similar to that of South American yerba mate. With caffeine levels per weight about a third less than coffee, the resulting buzz was pleasantly mild.

Yaupon has been used as an important food, medicine, and ceremonial item by Indigenous people for thousands of years. Bryon and his brother Kyle became some of the country’s first modern yaupon entrepreneurs upon starting their company in 2012. Until 2023, the business relied entirely on wild yaupon, which is relatively common across its range and springs back quickly after pruning. Yaupon Brothers maintains access to roughly 80,000 acres across Florida with naturally occurring yaupon, and wild harvesting still represents about 90% of the company’s supply chain.

Bryon White and his brother Kyle have explored farming the species, partnering with Agri-Starts in 2017 to mass-produce clones of two yaupon plants selected from the wild for their robust production and large leaves. Since 2021, about a dozen farmers across Florida, Mississippi, and Alabama have put nearly 250,000 yaupon trees in the ground, with the first harvests taking place last year.

Yaupon Brothers plans to establish its own farm with 25,000 plants at its new headquarters in Crescent City, Florida, with the long-term goal of capturing 1% of the American tea market, worth about $130 million. The company is partnering with the University of Florida to help answer questions about the yaupon genome and agronomic practices like fertilization and pest management.

Scientists know that yaupon’s global competitors are in trouble, as up to 75% of Brazil’s coffee-growing regions could become unsuitable for the crop by 2100 if current warming trends continue. Tea production in major exporter nations like Kenya and China is also coming under stress as humanity’s carbon emissions make temperatures hotter and rainfall less predictable.

Yaupon appeals to many beverage makers as a domestic option, with Whole Foods naming the plant its top food trend of 2023. While coffee remains the country’s dominant caffeine source, many customers show an increasing willingness to explore alternatives like yerba mate and matcha tea. Infruition Tea in Asheville, North Carolina, launched a yaupon product last year, and founder Brad Smith believes gaining a toehold in the rapidly expanding market is worth the investment.

Infruition’s canned sparkling yaupon blends the plant with strawberry, mint, and keemun black tea, which has been very popular among Cahokians. Smith said most people have not heard of yaupon but are very receptive to it due to its sustainability.

Read More @ FastCompany

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