Fans of the Slow Food movement may no longer need to struggle to satisfy their caffeine cravings close to home thanks to a young entrepreneur with a knack for botany.
A wooded area in New Caney, a city northwest of Houston, is garnering a lot of attention because of a bush native to the region.
“Yaupon holly” might not be a recognizable name to most, but it’s a common ingredient in social, medicinal and ritual concoctions among modern and indigenous populations alike.
Growing up to 30-feet tall, yaupon holly is smooth with gray bark and diamond-shaped leaves, and the bush grows abundantly in the southeast Texas region.
The branches from the plant are used to brew a drink called Cassina, which means “black drink” in Spanish, but, in reality, is actually an emerald-green beverage packing an eye-opening punch.
As the only caffeine source native to this area of the world, it was utilized among Native American populations, like the Creek tribe, who offered Cassina to visitors, along with tobacco.
During an interview with The Chronicle, Kingwood native Nick Panzarella, 26, said he regularly gathers yaupon holly in the New Caney woods surrounding his area.
He sees a future for the forgotten bush and hopes to add a new caffeine option for Houstonians who need to get their fix, which is why, in 2015, Panzarella founded Wild South Tea, a company promising to put Cassina back on the stimulant radar.
While yaupon holly is a local caffeine option, it’s not popular in the area, perhaps due to its flavor.
Historians, like Charles Hudson, who wrote a book about Cassina, argue it failed to thrive in North American culture because the Europeans who immigrated here preferred to import the tastes they knew, like coffee, tea and chocolate.
From there, Cassina went ignored by white populations, and, as native populations were pushed from their lands, they also lost access to the crop.
Although sipping on a dark emerald beverage might seem weird, fans say its no different than drinking green tea, despite the different appearance.
With the help of a few friends, Panzarella gathers the yaupon holly branches used in his brews firsthand. The tea is then brewed in a commercial kitchen in the Near Northside.
Like his local operation, Abianne Falla, originally from Houston, sells loose leaf yaupon holly to local businesses in Austin and San Antonio under the company name CatSpring Yaupon.
Only a few held on to the history of Cassina’s once popular brew, but that legacy is alive as ever, thanks to local entrepreneurs like these.