Bryon White, Yaupon Brothers American Tea Co., Wins Leadership Award for Citizenship

Julie Gallagher | 7 Dec 2020

A self-proclaimed plant nerd, Bryon White, 34, had been moving up the ranks in his law enforcement career when a Yaupon Holly plant near his Florida home captured his interest.

A book by anthropologist Charles Hudson revealed that Yaupon Holly was not just the only naturally caffeinated plant to grow in North America, but its leaves had been used by members of Indigenous Tribes to create an energizing drink and for ceremonial purposes for thousands of years.

“I stumbled upon a rabbit hole of ancient history and it was totally fascinating,” he says.

Thinking that it must not taste good or someone would have capitalized on it, White made test batches of Yaupon Holly tea for his friends and family. Everyone liked it.

“This was a once in a lifetime opportunity to reintroduce an ancient product and create value in the community,” he says.

Yaupon contains around 30 percent less caffeine than coffee and delivers a smooth and jitter-free energy boost with no crash, according to White. Like its South American cousin, Yerba Mate, Yaupon has dozens of vitamins, minerals, amino acids, polyphenols, and antioxidants to fortify the body and calm the mind.

With help from an investor, White launched Yaupon Asi Tea in 2012, but it ultimately failed. “I foolishly thought that it’d be wildly successful, but I didn’t think about scale,” he says.

He started over and in 2015 he and his brother co-founded Yaupon Brothers American Tea Co. along with White’s mentor Mark Steele, with a focus on righting many of the social wrongs related to the erasure of the Indigenous Tribes who used Yaupon Holly for thousands of years.

Five percent of its online sales are donated to the North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems and the Indigenous Food Lab founded by Chef Sean Sherman, also known as the Sioux Chef. Yaupon Brothers is distributed by Sweetgrass Trading, which is owned by the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, and through Eufaula Indian Community Distributors in the Mvskoke Nation of Oklahoma.

At a time when Florida citrus has been decimated by deadly bacteria, White also endeavors to turn Yaupon Holly into an alternative native crop. The company has partnered with the University of Florida’s Institute of Food & Agricultural Science on the regenerative agriculture model that it says results in less nutrient pollution, reduced water use, and resiliency to natural disasters like droughts, freezes, and hurricanes.

“We thought it was time to give farmers a new option of growing,” White says. “Yaupon Holly doesn’t need tons of fertilizer or pest control or irrigation, it’s much more sustainable than citrus.”

As part of the program, Yaupon Brothers propagates its own trees and gives them to the farmers who enter into an agreement to grow the trees for the tea maker’s use. Yaupon Brothers’ growing and processing operations are both certified organic.

The company has put more than 10,000 trees in the ground on four tea plantations, with 50,000 more planned over the next year.

White also co-founded the American Yaupon Association, a nonprofit devoted to promoting research, marketing, and advancement of the Yaupon Holly in commerce. It currently has about nine members.

“Yaupon is uniquely positioned to create a lot of value for a lot of marginalized people,” says White. “When consumers buy it, they make a choice to support our mission.”

Timeline

— 2010 Bryon White encounters Yaupon Holly

— 2011 Contemplates Yaupon Holly as a business opportunity

— 2012 Launches Yaupon Asi Tea

— 2015 Closes Yaupon Asi Tea; co-founds Yaupon Brothers American Tea Co. with his brother and mentor

— 2018 Co-founds the National Yaupon Association

— 2019 Leaves job in law enforcement; launches Lavender Coconut, American Green, and Florida Chai Yaupon Holly Teas; debuts in Jungle Jim’s and Lucky’s Market; forms partnership with North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems

— 2020 Launches Quarantine Survival Kit with proceeds benefitting Feeding Florida; debuts Revive Mint tea; obtains nationwide distribution in Cost Plus World Market


Julie Gallagher is managing editor of Specialty Food.