Startup Profile: Yaupon Brothers
For thousands of years, Yaupon, the only known caffeinated plant native to North America, was brewed as a tea and consumed daily by millions of Native Americans. Since the 1860s, however, it has grown in obscurity, mostly known as a hearty decorative holly plant sprouting in backyards across states like Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi. Now, two Blackstone LaunchPad Pitch Competition winners, brothers Bryon and Kyle White, are working to re-awaken a beverage previously lost to history with their company Yaupon Brothers American Tea Co.
“I’m a plant nerd,” Bryon says of his initial interest in Yaupon. “I came across Yaupon ten years ago, growing across the street from my house. I’m always looking at native plants and I’m curious about their uses so I read about them.”
His research brought him to a book called Black Drink, published in 1979 by anthropologist Dr. Charles Hudson, and he was riveted by the story it told of the plant’s forgotten history. Yaupon residue discovered in ornate ceramic vessels buried in the Illinois Cahokia Mounds suggests that Yaupon was traded and consumed as early as 1050 AD. Anthropologists believe that thousands of Indigenous Peoples both drank the tea as an everyday pick-me-up and used it in religious purification rituals. Colonial invaders incorporated the beverage into their daily lives, and by the time of the American Revolutionary War (1775-1784), farmers across the U.S. grew and traded the tea internationally, with cafes in London and Paris serving the brew.
By 1780, the British East India Company deemed Yaupon’s popularity a threat to its international tea monopoly and England limited Yaupon imports into Europe. Within a decade, the first superintendent of the Royal Botanic Gardens gave Yaupon a new scientific name: llex vomitoria, or “holly that provokes vomiting.” Optimistically, this name was based on the ritual use of Yaupon in purification ceremonies. More likely, it was part of a British smear campaign to discourage Yaupon consumption. By the mid 1800s, Yaupon became associated with poor communities that couldn’t afford international tea imports, and Native American tribes who cultivated Yaupon had either been killed or moved to regions where the plant didn’t grow. By the 1860s, it had slipped into obscurity.
When Bryon first learned about Yaupon, he reached out to a researcher studying the plant at the University of Florida, which has since established a research partnership with Yaupon Brothers. In 2015, Bryon partnered with his younger brother Kyle to co-found Yaupon Brothers. Through their school’s entrepreneurial hub, the UCF Blackstone LaunchPad, the brothers were able to jump right into central Florida’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.
“I left a career behind to become an entrepreneur,” Bryon says. “I was a criminologist, working in law enforcement for ten years. When I started doing this, I knew nothing about business or food. Every bit of business acumen I have, I’ve learned through this.”
Bryon and Kyle hit the ground running. In 2017, they were certified organic and won the UCF Joust Competition. Soon after they won the Rally Social Enterprise Accelerator pitch competition in 2018. Yaupon Brothers took third place at the Rollins Venture Plan Competition a year later. In 2020, they launched Yazoo Yaupon with tech entrepreneur, Oliver Luckett. In early 2021 they won the people’s choice award at the Blackstone LaunchPad Annual Pitch Competition, hosted virtually at the Startup Grind Global Conference.
As the brothers grow their business, they’ve stayed true to a main tenant of their original motivation — to pay tribute to the history of Yaupon.
“We never say we discovered the tea,” Bryon says, “We’re re-awakening it so that people can experience it and hear the story… The current state of Yaupon is the consequence of erasure and we want to do what we can to right a wrong and help people come to terms with America’s past.”
To this end, Yaupon Brothers donates a portion of proceeds to an Indigenous organization, the North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems (NāTIFS). Founded by The Sioux Chef, NāTIFS aims to re-establish Native foodways to address the economic and health crises affecting Native communities across the country.
In addition to supporting Indigenous food culture, Bryon and Kyle hope that Yaupon can have a positive economic and environmental impact in the communities in which they operate. On the environmental side, they believe that a resurgence of domestic caffeinated tea can help decrease the volume of tea imported annually, which they estimate to be about 250,000 tons.
“Think about all the carbon we’re not releasing by decreasing transport of tea across the ocean,” Bryon says.
Currently, Yaupon Brothers harvests its tea in both Florida and Mississippi, where the plant grows natively, making it an environmentally friendly crop that doesn’t require massive irrigation systems. In Florida, Yaupon is an ideal alternative crop to citrus, and in Mississippi, they’re hopeful production of Yaupon can uplift communities in the Delta, where it has grown incognito for decades. After recently creating a two acre Yaupon tree maze in Clarksdale, Bryon and Kyle are building a new facility in the city for manufacturing, distribution, and order fulfillment of their new line of tea, grown and made in the Delta, called Yazoo Yaupon.
“We do all our manufacturing, blending, and processing ourselves — soup to nuts, we take the leaves off the trees and don’t outsource anything,” says Bryon. “These products are important to me… and I want to make sure all our products are authentic, locally grown, and sustainable.”