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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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".