Abianne Miller and JennaDee Detro are reintroducing Texans to the only truly local source of caffeine in America.
Yaupon, an evergreen that grows throughout the South, as well as in Central and East Texas, is the only plant with caffeine indigenous to North America, and the tea made from its leaves has a pleasant, earthy taste similar to green tea and yerba mate, the popular South American drink made from a plant that is also in the holly family.
When the sisters discovered that they could make tea from the leaves of a native shrub that grows prolifically on their family’s land between Austin and Houston, they decided to turn it into a business.
After six months of tweaking the harvesting and preparation methods, Miller, who lives in Austin, and her sister, a Houstonian, launched Cat Spring Tea, named for the area in Austin County where they harvest the leaves.
Traditional black and green teas are made with leaves from Camellia sinensis, a plant that is not native to the Americas, and most of the tea consumed in the world is grown in China and India. Native Americans and early settlers drank yaupon tea for centuries before the popularity of English-style teas and coffees spread throughout the country. (There are a few tea farms in North Carolina, and though there are coffee growers in Hawaii and Mexico, the plant wasn’t introduced there until in the 1800s.)
Yaupon is a hardy plant that doesn’t require any additional fertilizers, pesticides or even water to thrive in Texas, Miller says, and researchers in Florida have found that yaupon tea has almost as many antioxidants as blueberries.
(A note: Although the scientific name of yaupon is Ilex vomitoria, yaupon leaves are not hallucinogenic or poisonous, but the bright red berries can cause nausea if ingested.)
Miller says that one of the most fulfilling parts of starting the company has been being able to hire employees to harvest the leaves from several organizations that connect employers with workers who are in vulnuerable situations, such as homelessness or transitioning out of correctional facilities.
Miller says that though she hears from people who still make and drink yaupon tea, there are very few companies selling it commercially. The Florida-based Yaupon Asi Tea (yauponasitea.com) recently brought its product to the Fancy Food Show in New York City, and Texas Yaupon Tea (texasyaupontea.com), based in the Bastrop area, is available at several outlets in Wimberley, including the Leaning Pear, and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.
Cat Spring sells two kinds of teas: a roasted "black" tea and an unroasted green version, and you can buy them (starting at $9.95 for 10 teabags) at catspringtea.com, Hillside Farmacy and In.gredients. You also can order the products through Farmhouse Delivery (farmhousedelivery.com), and other tea shops, restaurants and retailers will be carrying them in coming weeks.
Even though I’m not a fan of traditional yerba mate, I really enjoyed the Cat Spring roasted tea. The green tea was good, too, but the slightly nutty flavor of the roasted version had me raving to colleagues.
A lesson learned, though: When making the tea, don’t let the leaves steep for too long. The directions suggest two to five minutes, but I’d start sipping at a minute and then pull the tea bag or leaves out when the tea reaches desired intensity.