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Wayback Lowcountry: Black drink

This ancient ritual brew and coffee substitute is growing all around us.

Story + Artwork by Michele Roldán-Shaw

Yaupon holly berries are poisonous, but the leaves of the plant are caffeine-bearing and were used to make a coffee substitute back in the day called “black drink.”

A group of sparsely clad men with sun-bronzed skin assemble around the council fire. As they sit and discuss, they pass from hand to hand a whelk shell fashioned into a dipper with its center rib removed, edges sanded smooth, and sacred designs etched upon its surface. Within this special cup is “black drink,” as it was branded by European colonists who observed its thick dark appearance. But to the native people who brewed, shared and imbibed it much as they smoked tobacco, it was “white drink” — symbolic of purity, promoter of happiness, guardian of social harmony. For some tribes it was associated with Yahola, an immaculate sky deity entrusted with curing the people of illness. 

You might never guess that this mysterious libation was based on a single plant most likely growing in your yard right now: yaupon holly. Also called cassina-berry by locals, this ubiquitous evergreen shrub is a member of the holly family and sports distinctive bright red berries in winter. But while the berries are poisonous, the leaves make yaupon the only caffeine-bearing plant native to the United States. Unlike coffee, cacao, kola or even its close cousin yerba mate, yaupon never has been commercially exploited on a large scale. 

Black drink featured in native cultures throughout the Southeast. The leaves were parched in a ceramic vessel over the fire, which makes the caffeine more water-soluble (coffee beans are roasted for the same reason) then boiled in a potent brew. During its heyday, black drink spread beyond the confines of yaupon’s native coastal range to reach as far as Cahokia, an enormous mound complex outside present-day St. Louis that was an important urban center prior to the devastation of European contact. Ceremonial earthen beakers found there are stained with a dark residue that has been chemically analyzed to show the same components as black drink, indicating that yaupon was an important commodity in a vast pre-colonial trade network. 

Early settlers took up drinking it; yaupon is an English corruption of the name used by the Catawba of North Carolina, while the Spanish called it cassina, a word they borrowed from the Timucua of Florida. A Spanish priest chronicling life in 17th-century St. Augustine noted the rampant caffeine addiction with his words “any day that a Spaniard does not drink it, he feels he is going to die.” Yaupon was even exported back to Europe under the name “Carolina tea.” During the Civil War, when imported tea and coffee became scarce, Southerners of every stripe turned to yaupon for a fix. So why has it been all but forgotten?

One reason is that it came to have a negative association with poor country people who couldn’t afford the finer things. But another major reason — and a bit of a historical conspiracy theory — is that a deliberate sabotage was made with its scientific name: Ilex vomitoria. Assigned by William Aiton, a British botanist and royal gardener who likely had close ties to the East India Company, this unbecoming name might have been intended to eliminate yaupon’s threat to the tea trade. But the other part of the story involves differing accounts as to how native cultures used black drink. Sometimes it was drunk shell after shell all day in the council house to no ill effect; but other times it featured in special purgative ceremonies that involved ritual vomiting, often done before hunts, warfare or ball games. There is evidence that black drink sometimes contained emetic plants or even seawater. But there’s also the common-sense theory that if you boil any caffeinated beverage down strong enough and ingest a ridiculous amount after fasting, you’re certainly going to throw up. Whether the scientific name simply referenced this practice, or was an intentional slam to the competition, its influence has stuck — nobody wants to drink vomitoria.

Until now. yaupon tea is enjoying a resurgence, thanks to hip new companies like Charleston-based Yahola Tea, which specializes in wellness blends, and Florida-based Yaupon Brothers American Tea Company, which markets it as “the tea from here” and promotes it for energy and focus. Mainstream global tea blender Harney & Sons even has a tin of “Yaupon Black.” But why not just pick it in your own backyard? Harvest a handful of leaves, toast them in the oven, then steep them in boiling water for a few minutes the way you would regular tea. If you really want to hearken back to the Lowcountry of yore, drink it out of a whelk shell.