When you talk tea in the Lowcountry, it usually means orange pekoe over ice, sweet enough to rot the teeth right outta your head.
In downtown Savannah, however, Lou Thomann is brewing up a new take on the ubiquitous Southern beverage, one that's just as refreshing on a sultry summer day but without a packet of sugar in sight.
The businessman (and husband of venerated local realtor Lori Judge) has rediscovered yaupon, a type of holly tree that grows from the Carolinas down to Florida. When roasted and steeped in boiling water, the leaves of the yaupon tree produce a tasty and stimulating beverage much like its South American cousins, yerba mate and guayusa. The indigenous people of the Southeast sipped this "black drink" daily and ritually for centuries, calling the health-giving plant "Big Medicine." Thomann is hoping to revive their reverence with his new company, Pow Wow Yaupon Tea.
"This is an American treasure that has been lost," explains Thomann as he serves a thick-bottomed glass of yaupon tea, ice cubes tinkling. With a slight earthy flavor and a naturally sweet finish, it tastes like clean air after a thunderstorm.
"That's without a thing added," he promises.
Thomann's appreciation of yaupon began when he and Judge were adventuring with their son on Ossabaw Island. Their guide, naturalist John "Crawfish" Crawford, pointed out the massive stands of bushy-topped trees and helped brew up a batch of leaves around the campfire.
Back at home, Thomann researched yaupon and found that it contains a massive amount of antioxidants as well as caffeine and another buzz-giving alkaloid, theobromine — the same one found in chocolate.
Yaupon tea was also the first toast of the colony of Georgia: Records indicate that Tomochichi presented a cup to General Oglethorpe as a gesture of goodwill when he landed on Yamacraw Bluff. Other Americans dug it, too: Levi Strauss, the 19th-century genius who forged the sartorial revolution known as jeans, called yaupon "good for drinking, good for thinking."
So why are most Southerners ignorant of the wonderful heritage growing in our own backyards?
It appears to be a case of bad PR.
Just as yaupon was enjoying a nice reputation amongst new settlers for its invigorating qualities, a Scottish botanist named William Aiton assigned it the Latin name ilex vomitoria. According to University of Florida professor Francis E. Putz, Aiton observed Native American purification rituals that culminated in vomiting and blamed the brew, though yaupon has proved to contain no such purgative qualities. Aiton may also have been employed by the Ceylon Tea Company, who was not interested in competition.
"This could be the first case of corporate espionage," muses Thomann.
Yaupon got another bad blow during the Civil War, when blockades prevented tea and coffee from making their way south. The Confederates turned to the trees, and the brew suffered a reputation as "the poor man's drink" long after General Lee surrendered.
Yaupon is also known by its Muskogee name "cassina," or "asi" for short. The eponym of the Seminole leader Osceola is derived from "Asi Yahola," which means "Black Drink Singer" but sounds vaguely obscene.
Thomann is bringing back the class.
"Now that people are more educated about what's in it, I think there's going to be a demand," he says, adding that low-calorie beverages containing guayusa and yerba mate are making significant inroads in the ready-to-drink beverage market.
Pow Wow has been branded as the "American mate" and sports a sharp logo in moss-colored tones. Production is still in its bantling stages as its owner roasts leaves stored in lawn bags in the garage, but the stage is set for growth with imminent plans to sell tins of loose tea at farmers markets and small batches of refrigerated bottles. (To make it shelf stable, citric acid must be added, which changes the flavor. Thomann is experimenting with an original blend as well as flavors like hibiscus, lemongrass and fruit from another storied Lowcountry tree, the mulberry.)
Pow Wow launched a Kickstarter campaign in April to finance larger equipment, though Thomann resolves that his company will continue to sustainably harvest the leaves by only plucking the tips of the trees by hand. Future plans include partnering with timber companies to harvest from their untouched yaupon trees, and eventually, a yaupon farm.
"I would love to create an industry," he says. "That's the dream."
In the meantime, Thomann is putting Pow Wow to the taste test next week at the BevNET New Product Showdown in in New York City, as well as the World Tea Expo in Vegas.
He's bringing Pow Wow Yaupon Tea blended with a bit of stevia, a natural sweetener also derived from the leaves of a plant native to North America.
"This IS the south," he winks. "Tea's got to be a little sweet."