No Coffee, No Cry

Coffee won’t grow in the Brazos Valley.  In spite of the fact that this is self-evident, we checked.  We had to do so – life without coffee is inconceivable, yet once we came to the conclusion that locally produced foods are superior in every possible way to foods shipped in from parts unknown, we felt obligated to see what we could replace on our grocery list with, as one of our more colorful friends puts it, “food shot in the yard”.

Coffee grows at high altitudes.  College Station may be high attitude, but it is severely lacking in altitude.  So, locally produced coffee is, sadly, an impossibility.  What might replace our morning cuppa joe, were we ever to make the environmentally responsible switch?

We moved on to investigate the possibility of growing tea in College Station, less enthusiastically on Mr. Myrtle Maintenance’s part, as Mrs. Myrtle Maintenance is perfectly happy with tea, but her partner in this enterprise is somewhat grumpier without the higher doses of caffeine.

No good on tea, either.  The climate is actually very good for growing the Carmella sinensis plant, in terms of soil quality, temperature, and quantity of sunlight.  However, it requires about 50 inches of rain a year.  So, if we were willing to utilize every drop of our irrigation systems on growing a few tea shrubs, we could do it; everything else would fall by the wayside, though.  We have Oxford aspirations for our children, but we lack the fanaticism necessary for this degree of anglophilia; tea is a non-starter.  We may grow black currants, and we definitely still love biscuits and preserves, but ix-nay on the ea-tay.

What in the world is an aspiring locavore to do?  Stimulating beverages are something we are used to thinking of as simply growing on trees, but our national heritage is fraught with tales of woe related to the dependency we have formed on imported caffeine.  The Boston Tea Party is perhaps the most famous example of Americans gone mad over our enslavement to “the good stuff” and the economic power wielded by those who control its importation.

The blockade of the South during the Civil War led to trials and tribulations in the Confederacy, as well.  Numerous diarists wrote home from the front lines of the insufficiency of coffee; soldiers brewed a mish-mash of acorns and chicory, hoping that a hot and bitter beverage would fool their taste buds, even if it couldn’t fool their central nervous systems.  Americans lacking coffee or tea have despaired many times over the course of our nation’s history.

At Myrtle’s place, though, we don’t know the meaning of the word ‘quit’.  (That may have something to do with the fact that we burned the ‘Q’ section of the dictionary during last winter’s freak snowstorm, but we digress…)

Given the near universal acclaim for caffeinated beverages like coffee, tea, cola, and “energy drinks” like Red Bull, etc., we started with the assumption that other cultures must surely have encountered some caffeine-rich plant which could then be converted to potable form via brewing, distilling, or some other means, which we would be able to duplicate in our back yard.

This turned out to be a perfectly reasonable assumption.  Many plants produce caffeine, not just the coffee or tea trees.  We knew, for example, that cacao, which produces the bean from which chocolate is manufactured, also has smaller amounts of caffeine.  Other plants also make use of this chemical, because it is a natural pesticide, and even slightly herbicidal.  The presence of caffeine protects, particularly young plants but also fruiting plants, from insects and from the encroachment of other trees.  It repels bugs and retards the growth of neighboring plants.

Two South American plants besides coffee and cacao which produce caffeine are Guarana (Paullinia cupana), which is a climbing plant in the maple family, native to the Amazon basin and especially common in Brazil, and also Yerba maté (Ilex paraguariensis), a species of holly native to Argentina, Bolivia, Uruguay, Paraguay, and southern Brazil.

Both of these plants are used by locals to make strong beverages; Guarana, in particular, is used in a variety of commercially available beverages, and is even the basis of numerous soft drinks which take considerable market share away from Coca-Cola and Pepsi in Brazil.

However, it was the Yerba which caught our attention.  Ilex paraguariensis?  We are much more familiar with another Ilex species, Ilex vomitoria, also known as Yaupon Holly.  Our land was overrun with the stuff when we bought it – the yaupon grew so thickly here that you couldn’t even tell there was a house on our property until we had cut it back.

Yaupon grows to about 10-12 feet tall, and for four or five months a year has bright red berries on it.  We had heard a rumor that Native American tribes had long ago made a beverage from yaupon which caused them to vomit.  In fact, that is how the latin name for the plant originated – Ilex vomitoria.

Juxtaposing the yerba story with the yaupon story, we decided maybe the yaupon related beverage required a little more investigation.

It turns out that a concoction known in English as “Black Drink” was, in fact, brewed from Ilex vomitoria in early America by a variety of peoples.  The leaves and twigs were harvested just prior to preparation – freshness evidently being vital – and then roasted, prior to grinding and brewing.  Colonists imitated the Native Americans and brewed this beverage as a replacement for coffee or tea, and called it “cassine” or “cassina”.

Caddo, Creek, Cherokee, Choctaw, and other tribes consumed this beverage in the belief that it purged the drinker of anger and deceit.  This made it a particularly attractive social beverage, as these qualities would obviously be detrimental in group environments – for evidence, try running a modern committee meeting without coffee or tea.

Because the consumption of the beverage was so often a social event, it naturally led to drinking vast quantities of the beverage, often in ritual manner, with special songs being sung as the large tureen was passed from person to person.  As part of these rituals, many tribes included a final act of purging themselves by vomiting.  This was not a biochemical necessity, it was a religious act, and not every tribe shared in this unfortunate ritual.  The Ais peoples of Florida, in fact, were often observed by European settlers to drink the stuff on a regular basis without ever suffering gastric distress.  To further illustrate the significance of the beverage, the ritual name Asi Yahola or Black Drink Singer is corrupted into English as Osceola.

Armed with all of these clues as to the potability of this beverage, sans the risk of (ahem!) unwanted emissions, the next question becomes whether this might be an acceptable substitute for coffee.  Clearly, early European settlers were willing to settle for Black Drink in the absense of coffee or tea, but just as clearly, they preferred to go back to the imported stuff as quickly as possible.

Chemically, we know yaupon has roughly six times as much caffeine as coffee.  This goes a long way to explaining the lack of groundcover underneath our yaupon stands; there are plenty of young tree shoots, but no grasses – not even very many weeds – underneath the Ilex vomitoria.  Naturally, this means the drink will be fairly bitter.  Too bitter to drink?  And could the bitterness be cut by the inclusion of some sweet herb or other?

There’s only one way to find out.  We made it ourselves.

The traditional way for at least the last 10,000 years in the Gulf Coast region has been to parch the leaves and twigs of yaupon in a ceramic container, so we did the same thing.  We then boiled the crushed leaves and twigs in our coffee pot, and strained them in our french press to make sure no extraneous leaves or twigs made it to the cup.

The resulting beverage had roughly the consistency of a very dark tea -- it even smelled a lot like a good orange pekoe, though the color was closer to that of a dark roasted arabica coffee bean.

The telling question, though, is naturally the question of taste.  What did it taste like?  It tasted like raisin-flavored tea.  There is no other way to describe it; it tasted like sweet raisins squeezed into a nice hot cup of tea.  The caffeine buzz was fairly intense, so much so that when our daughter asked to try it, we only gave her a small portion, which she drank with a heavy dose of sugar, and a qualified thumbs up.  She still prefers Earl Grey, but our parched yaupon tea will do in a pinch, she says.

We still prefer coffee, we must admit.  But we are mystified why this beverage is not at least as popular as many of the other forms of caffeine currently available on the market.  It actually tastes quite good, and it comes from a tree which grows like a weed throughout most of the Gulf region.  We chopped down a lot of yaupon to make room for vegetables and herbs; we aren't cutting down any more, though.  They put the "tea" in "Tea Shoppe".

Happy farming!

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