Rediscovered: the original Texas tea

August 9, 2017 Updated: August 9, 2017 8:11am

Victor Gonzales emerged out of the thicket dragging a 15-foot branch, blood trickling down his shin. “I didn’t even feel it,” he said, though he was too tired to laugh.

The 23-year-old from Kingwood and a crew of four other young men had hiked back into the woods on a small farm in New Caney, northwest of Houston. They were foraging for yaupon holly, a tall, shrub-like plant native to this part of the world.

Deep in the woods, Led Zeppelin blared from a speaker in a backpack, John Bonham’s bass drum as heavy as the thud of Barrett Schulze’s ax as he cracked into the plant. Tugging at T-shirts that were sticking to their skin, Gonzales and the other men lugged the branches out to a clearing and lopped them down to size.

It was tedious, sweaty work. Eventually, they’d haul away about 40 pounds of it, which they’d use to make an emerald-green drink called cassina.

Cassina, the Spanish name for “black drink,” has been used socially, medicinally and ritually by indigenous people throughout what is now the American South for centuries, if not longer. It is the only source of caffeine native to this part of the world. Among other uses, the Creek prepared cassina (along with tobacco) for important visitors. It was a social lubricant. Karankawa men, Texas explorer Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca observed in the 1500s, ceremoniously drank cassina “as hot as they can stand.”

But you’ve probably never heard of cassina. Why don’t we still drink it?


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The answer is complicated. The late Charles Hudson, who wrote a book on cassina, argued that as white Europeans imported coffee, tea and chocolate, cassina was simply outperformed. But genocide and the forced displacement of indigenous people who knew cassina contribute to that marginalization, too. The Trail of Tears moved people where yaupon doesn’t grow, and cassina was largely erased, almost forgotten.

Now, Nick Panzarella, 26, is hoping to bring it — and this complicated cultural history — back.


HE’S BEEN experimenting with cassina since he was a kid. A voracious reader and an Eagle Scout, he grew up in Kingwood, riding his bike on the Greenbelt, trails that snake through the master-planned community. Those are thick with yaupon, he says. “It was one of the first plants I could identify, because it’s so common.”

He once met another Scout who said he brewed cassina from it. Panzarella was horrified.

The unappetizing Latin name for yaupon is Ilex vomitoria — perhaps because historic accounts, including Cabeza de Vaca’s, often mention its use in ceremonies that involved ritual vomiting.

“Dude,” Panzarella remembers telling the Scout, “you’ll vomit if you drink that.”

“No,” the other Scout assured him. “It tastes like regular tea.”

So it does, Panzarella found out. He started reading more and researching the plant in foraging textbooks. So common as to be considered a nuisance, yaupon lacks tannins, the compounds that cause tea’s bitterness. Besides the caffeine, an obvious perk, it’s loaded with antioxidants, he learned.

Then he tried brewing it. “I couldn’t get the taste right,” he said. “But I thought there was a chance.”

Nick Panzarella founded Wild South Tea in 2015. Photo: Michael Wyke, For The Chronicle / © 2017 Houston Chronicle

Photo: Michael Wyke, For The Chronicle

Nick Panzarella founded Wild South Tea in 2015.

It wasn’t until years later — after Panzarella studied linguistics in college in New Orleans, after he moved away from the U.S. — that the idea to start a cassina business took hold.

Traveling in Italy, he encountered the slow-food movement, which emphasizes the native, the local, the seasonal. Our food should be prepared by hand in a kitchen, the thinking went, not processed by a machine in a facility.

Panzarella was an easy convert. Agriculture’s in his blood: His uncle is John Panzarella, the citrus guruwhose jam-packed Lake Jackson yard is said to contain the largest private citrus collection in Texas. “Fruits would taste so good at my uncle’s house,” Panzarella said, “and they would never taste as good anywhere else.”

While in Italy, he told a German friend about yaupon, how abundant it was in Texas, how it was local, always in season.

The friend told him about Club-Mate, a soda made with yerba mate, a yaupon-like plant native to Argentina. It’s become one of the most popular drinks in Germany. “If we drink that,” the friend said, “they’ll drink yaupon in Texas.”


PANZARELLA RETURNED to Houston, and in 2015 he launched Wild South Tea.

Now, every few weeks, he, Gonzales, Schulze and his crew gather at his uncle’s farm in New Caney. They hike back into the woods and look for yaupon, which can grow up to 30 feet tall. It has a smooth, gray bark and diamond-shaped leaves.

Working for a few hours, they forage as many as 100 pounds, which they drive away in a U-Haul to an old house near downtown Humble. There, they strip the leaves from the branches and lay them out to dry.

Yaupon leaves have been used to make a drink called cassina for centuries. Photo: Michael Wyke, For The Chronicle / © 2017 Houston Chronicle

Photo: Michael Wyke, For The Chronicle

Yaupon leaves have been used to make a drink called cassina for centuries.

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