Yaupon — an academics discovery of reverence and altruism in a tea company.
Dr. David Brock
As someone that has spent most of their adult life in the health and wellness area as a professor, scientist and clinician, it is rare for me to encounter a product, particularly a consumable, that lives up to the hype. As the Director of a major physical activity and nutrition research facility at the University of Vermont for 10 years, we received requests all the time to “validate” products, which more often than not serve as a quid-pro-quo for academic researchers to receive grant funding and the product owner to be able to make health claims. Not only were the products ill-conceived most of the time, but the people behind them were almost entirely motivated by money — improving health, whether it human, animal, or environmental was of minimal concern. Little did I know that during my Covid-19-inspired academic sabbatical, not only would I stumble upon a product I would quickly incorporate into my own health and wellness routine, but the people behind the product have a driving passion and ethos to improve collective health and resurrect a tea category known for thousands of years to North American indigenous cultures. A sight for this academic researcher’s sore eyes.
Having recently moved from Burlington VT and a stint in Asheville, NC down to New Smyrna Beach, FL — a place that Southern Living colloquially refers to as “a sandy little town so chill it’s practically napping in a hammock”, I decided a good place to get to know the town and people was the farmer’s market. So off I went with new flip-flops on, reusable grocery bags and high hopes. To my delight, all of the usual suspects were there — local veggie and fruit stands, honey sourced from local bees, artisan bread, crafts, and then I walked up to a stand selling Yaupon Tea. My first take was…what the heck is Yaupon? In my professional life, I knew and tracked most of the research on tea — in most cases a superfood powerhouse, but Yaupon — isn’t that a local shrub? I could tell the person behind the stand was used to addressing puzzled looks and proceeded to give me the stump speech. I partly listened, as is my nature after two decades in a data-driven field, but what I did hear was…”the only caffeinated plant that grows in North America”, “one of the oldest known teas”, “highly revered by indigenous cultures”, “very little environmental impact”. To say I was intrigued was an understatement, and so I left the stand with two containers of Yaupon Brothers Tea — American Green and Revive Mint. Having fallen into the allure of local products before only to discover that it was a cool story, but the product itself left a lot to be desired, I had low expectations for the actual taste and health and wellness aspects of the tea.
Once home, I made a cup of the American Green followed immediately by a cup of the Revive Mint. Absolutely delicious, and my standard for comparison was white silver needle — the opus one of teas. I was compelled to learn more, and what I quickly discovered was the holy grail of health and wellness researchers and educators right under my nose. The holy grail is typically the ability for a consumer product in the health and wellness space to check off three major categories: (1) is it scientifically, empirically supported to positively induce some aspect of human health, (2) is it agriculturally produced in a way that limits the use of harmful toxins and/or the destruction of natural ecosystems, and (3) is the carbon footprint of its production and delivery minimal? An exceptionally high bar for the tea category, and one that is rarely met. For example, white silver needle tea — delicious and health promoting — a positive, but imported from up to 8,000 miles away, with little knowledge of the environmental growing practices, the labor standards in place, and the immense carbon footprint of getting the tea from the high mountain passes of China to my doorstep — a big negative. Over the years, the health and wellness community has progressed, albeit slowly, from a primary interest in individual health to the broader aspects of community and environmental health, as research continues to demonstrate how intricately linked individual health is tied to environment and community. In Yaupon, what I discovered was a plant that has a comparable if not favorable antioxidant profile, grows wild and organically in the southeastern United States, is the only plant indigenous to the US that is caffeinated and uniquely so with theobromine — another antioxidant powerhouse found in superfoods such as cacao, and thought to play a role in the unique, jittery-free lift in mood and alertness that caffeine alone is unlikely to produce. I reached out to several of my academic and scientific colleagues around the US to ask if they had ever heard of Yaupon Tea, and not-a-one had heard of it. Serendipitously, I received an email from CEO and co-founder of Yaupon Brothers Tea, Bryon White, thanking me for my second order of their tea — an order headed to my parents. My father had recently abated a stage IV metastatic cancer diagnosis with radical alterations to his diet, and to this day, he credits massive consumption of various teas as part of his success at beating back one of the most feared diagnoses in human health. I responded to Bryon’s email, and he graciously invited me for a chat and discovery tour of their facilities.
One rainy and humid late summer day, I headed down to Edgewater, FL where Yaupon Brothers Tea is headquartered. I pulled up to a relatively discreet facility and donned a face mask (ugh!) went in, and I was immediately greeted by Bryon and the COO, Shelly Steele. It wasn’t long before I was surrounded by all sorts of tea leaves in different stages of the drying and packaging process. Bryon showed me his test kitchen while referring to himself as a “plant nerd”, and his infectious energy rivaled any of the innately passionate PhDs I had encountered throughout my career. He told me he was concocting all sorts of new blends — one with mushrooms grown in an organic urban garden in Orlando — one with locally-sourced hemp from Umatilla — one with mangos! My arms quickly became filled with all sorts of samples — matcha produced from Yaupon, but what most struck me was the profound historical knowledge that Brian and Shelly shared with me about Yaupon — that Ameri-Indians used it in ceremonies and, in our parlance, as a sports drink for athletic endeavors, the myriad of benefits from purchasing local products in targeted areas of Florida’s agriculture, the grow your own Yaupon campaign they started. I left the facility with the impression that I had met the genuine article — a group of people who were supremely interested in contributing to health and wellness and doing it with the idea that a business has the ability to change the fabric of social consciousness around what healthy means, individually and collectively.
David W Brock Ph.D.
Former Director of the Physical Activity and Wellness Research Center, Associate Professor of Exercise and Movement Science, and Gubernatorial Appointee to Peter Shumlin’s Council for Physical Activity and Sport, University of Vermont, Burlington VT.