From Forest to Cup: Crafting the Perfect Yaupon Tea- A Complete Guide

Crafting the Perfect Yaupon Tea

Yaupon Tea is an ancient, historic and sacred tea made from the leaves of the Yaupon Holly tree. Yaupon is the only caffeinated plant species in all of North America, and it was at the center of civilization in the southeastern U.S. for over eight thousand years. For a variety of cultural (and underhanded) marketing reasons, Yaupon has taken a back seat to tea that originated in China (Camellia sinensis). Modern society has taken a second look at Yaupon, culminating with Whole Foods naming Yaupon the number one food trend in 2023. The reasons are many, including:

  • Great taste without any tannins (bitterness); no sugar required
  • A sustainable agricultural model that doesn’t need pesticides or fertilizers
  • Yaupon is a natural antioxidant and anti-inflammatory powerhouse
  • Yaupon is a local caffeine source (about like green tea) that doesn’t have to travel thousands of miles over vast oceans. Think carbon footprint…

While we would prefer that you buy your tea from us at Rise Yaupon, this blog is for those of you who want to wild harvest and home-brew your own tea.

History of Yaupon

Yaupon Plant Basics

Yaupon grows in an arc around the Gulf of Mexico and within a thin strip along the east coast all the way to Virginia Beach. In the wild, it's usually an understory plant but it can thrive in full sun or shade. We prefer shady plants because the leaves are larger, sweeter and easier to harvest and process. If you look under oak trees in the green zone to the right, Yaupon can usually be found. Yaupon is salt, drought, bug, disease and freeze resistant. These plants grow in communities, and usually all the trees in any given area are connected by an elaborate root system. When one tree is damaged, the root system supports total regeneration. It’s a family affair.

A Word of Caution - Yaupon Plant

A Word of Caution…

If you make tea out of most plants found in the forest, there will not be any bad side effects. Just bad tea. However, there are some plants that will be dangerous, so pay attention and get the right leaves!

Here are the characteristics of Yaupon Holly that must be present:

  1. Glossy, serrated leaves. Not pointy like Christmas Holly, but definitely saw toothed. These leaves on the right come from a Yaupon tree growing in a shady area. Yum!
  2. Straight gray stems, staggered leaves. Notice the serrated edges on the leaves? Also, each leaf does not have a duplicate directly opposite. They stair-step along the branch. Note that these full sun leaves are smaller than those of the shady plant.
  3. Find the berries in this picture. This is a female tree.  She is beautiful but you do not want berries in your tea! These berries are high energy food for migrating birds and other forest creatures, but they are mildly poisonous to humans (tummy upset). All Yaupon plants flower, but only the females have berries. At Rise Yaupon, we invented a machine that can remove 100% of the berries in huge volumes of leaves; home brewers need to pick them out by hand if they get into the mix. All of the trees on our farm are males!

Yaupon Tea

Harvesting Tips

Yaupon leaves can be harvested any time of the year. There are spring and fall flushes of growth, but the plants will completely regenerate in a few months whenever you harvest. We never take more than half the leaves from any tree at a time.

We have a crew of pickers and each one can pull 4 or 5 pounds of leaves per hour. We currently process almost 400 pounds of leaves per month. Beginners will get one pound per hour…but that’s all you need to home brew. Get some good gardener’s gloves or use athletic tape around your index and middle finger. The leaves will strip off when pulled by the handful. Tear off and discard the branch you pull from; the plant regenerates faster that way. Our harvesters have a bungee-supported bucket in front of them and harvest hand over fist. You just need to have a bag or pail handy.

Wash your Yaupon

We use an organically certified cleaner to wash and sterilize our leaves. Then we rinse and spin-dry most of the water away. You can just rinse off yours in a large mixing bowl  and you’ll be fine. You are aiming to remove any dirt or grime from the leaves.  Boiling water (later in the process) will kill any residual bacteria.

Dry your Yaupon

Spread your leaves on a metal sheet and remove anything that is not a Yaupon leaf; twigs, spanish moss and especially berries. Set your leaves aside for a few days until you can’t bend a leaf without fracturing it. Some people roast their Yaupon to speed up this process. For a light roast, bake them at 200 degrees for 30 minutes. For dark try 400 degrees for 5 minutes (pay attention so they don’t burn). We never roast; we prefer the lighter, refreshing natural flavor of air drying. The dark roast has more of a coffee taste.

Grind your leaves

Once leaves are completely dry, get a blender or food processor and throw your leaves in. Some people mash them up by hand. We fine grind ours to about ⅛” or so; the finer the grind, the stronger the tea. When we sell loose leaf tea, the flakes are bigger. Experiment! Store in a sealed container.

Flavored tea additives

Yaupon is the basis of all our teas and we create different varieties using several spices and flavorings. You can find all of them online. These include ground spearmint, peppermint, cinnamon, ginger, hibiscus, rose hips and petals, freeze-dried strawberries, etc. Have fun with trying your own new blends!

Steep it and keep it

Get yourself one of these infusers (for about $2 at Amazon). Add about a tablespoon of your ground Yaupon to the infuser and put it in the bottom of your cup and leave it there for the morning. Add boiling water, and when it’s cool enough to drink it’s steeped enough to drink. Because Yaupon has no tannin, it cannot be oversteeped in time or temperature (never bitter makes it better). When finished, add more boiling water to your cup. You should get three nice cups of tea from one tablespoon of Yaupon. Note that the majority of the caffeine steeps out in the first cup. Boiling water is especially important - Yaupon leaves are tougher than other teas so you need boiling water to release the caffeine and antioxidants.  For DIYers, boiling water is your kill stage for any bacteria that may be on the leaves you harvested.

Old Fashion Brewing

Put a cupful of water in a pan and add a tablespoon of Yaupon. Bring it to a boil. Pour it through a fine-meshed sieve back into your cup and enjoy.

We see Yaupon as a force for good. Here is what draws us to this special tea:

  • It tastes great without the need for sugar
  • It contains caffeine and theobromine (the “pleasure” molecule in chocolate) for jitter-free alertness
  • It is an antioxidant superfood
  • It is a great source of polyphenols and flavonoids to help prevent inflammation and cancer
  • It is the most environmentally perfect tea in the world, with a negative carbon footprint and no need for chemicals on the farm
  • It means income for American farmers, and it allows us to pay a living wage to our second-chance employees
  • We use one dollar for every unit sold to feed impoverished kids here in Florida
  • It has a robust and rich history, longer than teas from China.

Happy steeping, and welcome to the wonderful world of Yaupon! For more information,you can check out our other blogs

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