Foraged Gardening Recipes

Hot-brewed yaupon holly & roasted acorn flour – better than coffee?

Hot-brewed yaupon holly & roasted acorn flour - better than coffee? thumbnail
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Is it possible to make a drink from plants native to the United States that delivers a robust flavor AND caffeine level comparable to coffee? With hot-brewed yaupon holly & roasted cold-leached acorn flour, we think so – and we’ll show you how!  


In our article, How to grow caffeine or discover it in your yard, we detail plants you can grow if you want to produce your own caffeine in your yard or garden. The two plants that can easily be grown by most people living in non-tropical areas of the United States are:

  1. Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) – grows in zones 7-9;
  2. Tea camellia (Camellia sinensis) – grows in zones 7-9.   
A dwarf 'Nana' yaupon holly front with a large kale plant in the background for size reference. Although our 'Nana' yaupon maxes out at 5', some native yaupons can grow to be 25' tall.

A dwarf ‘Nana’ yaupon holly (front) with a large kale plant in the background for size reference. Although our ‘Nana’ yaupon maxes out at 5′, some native yaupons can grow to be 25′ tall.

Yaupon holly vs Camellia sinensis tea

We live in Zone 7b and grow both yaupon holly and tea camellia. If you’ve ever had black, white, green, oolong, matcha, or pretty much any other common caffeinated tea, you’ve had tea made from Camellia sinensis, aka tea camellia. Yes, those types of teas are all made from the same plant, they’re just harvested at different times and/or processed differently after harvest. 

However, even most avid tea drinkers living in the US have never had yaupon holly tea. That’s a sad thing considering that yaupon holly is: 1) native to the southeastern US, 2) very easy to grow organically, 3) tastes just as good if not better than black or green tea.

In fact, yaupon holly is so easy to grow that it’s a common landscape plant that can be found in most southeastern nurseries. There’s also a good chance it’s even growing in your yard right now…  Yep, you might be living on an accidental tea plantation! 

If you like teas made from tea camellia, you’ll also like yaupon holly tea. That’s because yaupon holly tea tastes like a cross between green and black tea. 

We enjoy our yaupon holly tea slightly sweetened with organic stevia, and even add a spot of whole milk when we’re feeling British.

Freshly picked yaupon holly leaves. You can run your hand the opposite direction of the leaves up the stem of the plant to quickly remove the leaves. They also remove much easier after they've dried for 48+ hours. You can also use the stems of the plant if you'd like, however never use the berries (which are only on female plants), which are mildly poisonous.

Freshly picked yaupon holly leaves. You can run your hand the opposite direction of the leaves up the stem of the plant to quickly remove the leaves. The leaves separate much easier after they’ve dried for 48+ hours. You can also use the stems of the plant if you’d like, however never use the berries (which are only on female plants) because they are mildly poisonous.

How much caffeine is in yaupon holly tea… and how can you increase it? 

According to Yaupon Brothers American Tea Company, a typical cup of yaupon holly tea has about 60mg of caffeine (vs 47mg for a cup of black tea and 96mg for a cup of coffee)

Two interesting caveats to note on the caffeine levels in yaupon holly leaves by way of a 2007 study

  1. Certain yaupon cultivars have more caffeine than others. The two cultivars with the highest caffeine concentrations are: a) ‘Nana‘ (a popular dwarf cultivar that we grow that only reaches 5’ tall), and b) ‘Pendula.’ 
  2. As per the same study: “caffeine and total alkaloid concentrations were 5-10 times higher in fertilized than control plants but did not vary by gender.” (Yes, there are male and female yaupon holly plants – and you should NOT eat the berries on female plants, because they’re mildly poisonous.) 

In other words, by selecting a yaupon holly cultivar like ‘Nana’ and then providing it with additional nitrogen fertilizer (hello, liquid gold), you may be able to increase caffeine levels in your homegrown yaupon holly tea by 500-1,000%, much stronger than coffee. That’ll wake you up in the morning!  

Small leaves, big caffeine. A closer look at the leaves on our dwarf yaupon holly plant. Important note: there are also poisonous holly plants, so don't ever make tea from anything other than yaupon holly.

Small leaves, big caffeine. A closer look at the leaves on our dwarf yaupon holly plant. Important note: there are also poisonous holly plants, so don’t ever make tea from anything other than yaupon holly.

The other nice thing about yaupon holly tea (and tea camellia teas for that matter) is that it doesn’t give you the caffeine jitters like coffee can. That’s because other compounds in the leaves of both plants help to moderate/equalize the stimulatory effects of the caffeine. 

In the US, coffee remains the undisputed caffeinated king.

Americans tend to sleep too little and work too much. Being permanently exhausted and always on the go is a badge of honor.

To fuel these patterns, we utilize a combination of illegal and legal stimulants/psychoactive compounds, ranging from cocaine to adderall to caffeinated beverages.

In other parts of the world, tea is the preferred source of caffeine. However, in the US, coffee is king. 

The average American adult drinks about 88 gallons of coffee annually (US men and women drink coffee at the same rate). However, each of us only consumes an average of 34 gallons of tea annually.

Also of interest:

Why do Americans drink more coffee than tea?

Why do Americans drink more coffee than tea? Is it because we’re all still following the call of our second President, John Adams, who declared tea a “traitor’s drink.” (Damned British!) Is it because coffee is considered more “manly” than tea?  

Much ink has been spilled trying to answer this question, but there’s no consensus. It’s likely a combination of cultural and social factors that influence individual behavior patterns, which then become habitual.

Once someone starts having that morning cup of Joe, it’s hard for anything to replace it. Or here in the south, once someone starts having a cup of sweet iced tea on a hot summer day, that becomes a lifelong pattern, like putting your pants on left leg-first. 

In our opinion, one of the biggest factors making coffee more popular than tea in the US is that a cup of coffee gives you more caffeine.

  • A standard 8 ounce cup of hot-brewed coffee delivers 96mg of caffeine.
  • A cup of black tea delivers 47mg of caffeine and a cup of green tea delivers 28mg.   

In addition to being a more efficient caffeine-delivery device, coffee is also a more robustly-flavored drink than caffeinated tea. Make it sweet and creamy like most Americans do, and you’ve got yourself a delicious addiction that helps you work longer, harder, with more mental focus. 

Coffee is usually environmentally horrific 

The cost of our collective coffee addiction isn’t something we think about because we don’t see it or pay for it (e.g. the costs are externalized). We won’t go on a rant here about the massive scale of the environmental damage caused from coffee production and consumption; tropical rainforests being clear-cut and replaced by monocrop coffee farms, countless plastic coffee pods and cups tossed in the trash, etc.

Ok, we just ranted a little bit… If you want to take a deeper dive into the environmental costs our current coffee consumption patterns are having on earth, Mic.com has a good writeup. 

The Tyrant and I are no angels here. We drink coffee, too (using our home French press). We also drink tea, both store-bought and homegrown. When we buy coffee or tea, we make certain it’s certified organic and comes with other labels that indicate it was produced in a way that respects the people and place it came from. We hope you do too.

But what if there was another alternative to coffee? One that could be sourced locally from perennial plants grown organically? One that provides as much if not more caffeine than coffee? And one that tastes rich and delicious

Cold-leached acorn flour and yaupon holly leaves - ingredients for a caffeinated coffee alternative made from native plants.

Cold-leached acorn flour and yaupon holly leaves – ingredients for a caffeinated coffee alternative made from native plants.

Acorns & yaupon: a caffeinated, culinary love story 

Each fall we make batches of cold- and/or hot-leached acorn flour. We’re always amazed by the sheer quantity of acorns that a single tree can produce. In our best acorn foraging spots, we’ll fill a 5-gallon bucket with chestnut-sized acorns in about 15 minutes.

American Chestnuts used to be a starchy staple crop for Native American societies, but they went functionally extinct in the early 1900s due to imported blight. Acorns were also a starchy staple crop for many Native American societies – and oak trees are very much alive today.    

After leaching and processing, acorn flour tastes sweet, rich, and nutty, with notes of sweet potato and chestnut. We use it in all sorts of baked goods, but what about an acorn-based drink? 

We did some experimentation to see if we could create a caffeinated coffee alternative using our acorn flour and yaupon holly leaves. We were pleased by the results… 

Yaupon holly & acorn flour taste test 

We know what to expect from a cup of yaupon tea, but wanted to play around with different combinations of acorn flour + yaupon to see what combination would yield the best flavor.

Here’s our small-scale experiment (n=2) and *blind taste test results. (*Blind = neither The Tyrant or I knew which version of the drink we were sampling.) Also, keep in mind that neither of us likes black coffee – we adulterate it with stevia and whole organic grass milk. 

Fresh, chopped yaupon holly leaves from our dwarf 'Nana' bush. No, you don't have to dry tea leaves before using them if you have your own plants. Drying the leaves just preserves them and allows them to be packaged.

Fresh, chopped yaupon holly leaves from our dwarf ‘Nana’ bush. No, you don’t have to dry tea leaves before using them if you have your own plants. Drying the leaves just preserves them and allows them to be packaged.

Each sample drink used:

  • 3 grams (approximately 1 tablespoon) fresh yaupon holly leaves, chopped;
  • 1 tablespoon acorn flour with various treatments listed below;
  • 1/2 cup water, warmed to 210°F (99°C);
  • steeping time of 5 minutes in covered dish. 

Four different versions of acorn flour were trialed:

  • cold-leached 
  • hot-leached
  • cold-leached, oven-roasted for 30 minutes at 350°F (177°C)
  • hot-leached, oven-roasted for 30 minutes at 350°F 
Cold-leached acorn flour (left) and hot-leached acorn flour (right) about to get oven-roasted for 30 minutes at 350°F.

Cold-leached acorn flour (left) and hot-leached acorn flour (right) about to get oven-roasted for 30 minutes at 350°F. You could roast the acorn flour hotter and/or longer to get more intense flavors.

Test #1: Plain tea test

Tasting notes from the first tea trial, aka “plain tea test” (no sweetener or milk – even though that’s how we like our coffee) are below: 

It's interesting to note the color variations in each cup, resulting from whether the acorn flour was hot- or cold-leached, roasted or un-roasted. Our least to most favorite is shown arranged 1-4 (notes below).

It’s interesting to note the color variations in each cup, resulting from whether the acorn flour was hot- or cold-leached, roasted or un-roasted. Our least to most favorite is shown arranged 1-4 (see notes below).

1. Hot-leached acorn flour & yaupon tea

Strong tea notes on the front; very mild acorn flavor. Taste rating: 4/10 

2. Cold-leached acorn flour & yaupon tea

Pretty much the same as #1. Taste rating: 4/10 

3. Hot-leached, oven-roasted acorn flour & yaupon tea 

Nice strong roasted acorn flavor with secondary tea notes. Taste rating: 6/10

4. Cold-leached, oven-roasted acorn flour & yaupon tea 

Acorn forward, nice roasted flavor with tea notes trailing. / Taste rating: 7/10

Test #2: Sweetened & milk added tea test

Adding dairy and sweetener vastly improved the flavor of the various samples, at least in our opinion (as people who don't like black coffee).

Taste Test 2: Adding dairy and sweetener vastly improved the flavor of the various samples, at least in our opinion (as people who don’t like black coffee).

Since we (and most other Americans) prefer coffee that’s had dairy and sweetener added to it, we also added 1/4 tsp of our favorite organic stevia powder + 1 tbsp of organic whole milk to the same four teas and did another round of taste tests. 

In our opinion, the sweet/dairy addition significantly improved the flavor of all four teas. However, the clear winner as a potential coffee substitute was #4: cold-leached, oven-roasted acorn flour & yaupon tea w/ milk and stevia. 

We detected subtle notes of sweet potatoes, nuts, and oat milk + roasted/smoky flavors + very mild but pleasant bitter notes of the yaupon tea balancing things out on the end. The underlying flavors were enhanced by the dairy and sweetener. 

*The flavors are still awesome with more water added, as per our recipe below. 

Recipe: Hot-brewed yaupon holly & roasted acorn flour tea

Here’s how to get started making your own hot-brewed yaupon holly & roasted acorn flour tea at home: 

Hot-brewed yaupon holly & roasted acorn flour. With a rich, delicious flavor and a jitter-free caffeine level potentially higher than coffee, what's not to love?

Hot-brewed yaupon holly & roasted acorn flour. With a rich, delicious flavor and a jitter-free caffeine level potentially higher than coffee, what’s not to love?

Hot-brewed yaupon holly & roasted acorn flour
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Hot-brewed yaupon holly & roasted acorn flour tea

Course: Drinks
Keyword: acorn drink, acorn flour, coffee alternative, yaupon holly
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Servings: 1 cup

A rich, savory highly caffeinated (but jitter-free) coffee alternative made from perennial plants native to North America (yaupon holly and acorn flour).

Ingredients

  • 1 tbsp cold-leached acorn flour (oven-roasted at 350F for 30 minutes or longer if desired)
  • 1 tbsp fresh or dried yaupon holly leaves, chopped
  • 1 cup water, right at boiling temp
  • 1/4 tsp organic stevia powder (optional)
  • 1 tbsp organic whole milk or cream (optional)

Instructions

  1. Combine chopped yaupon leaves and roasted acorn flour in sauce pan (or tea making device like an infuser). Pour near-boiling water over the ingredients, stir, and cover. Let steep 5 minutes, stirring a few times as the ingredients steep.

  2. Strain out leaves and acorn flour and pour drink into a coffee cup. Add stevia/sweetener and dairy to desired taste. Serve warm or iced and enjoy!

There are countless ways you could play with this drink (roasting the yaupon tea leaves, roasting the acorn flour longer/hotter, etc). This is just a starting point for further exploration. 

However, we’re happy to have a rich, savory, highly caffeinated drink made from home-grown, locally foraged native plants. We hope you’ll enjoy it too!     

And even if you don’t want to make your own acorn flour, you can still buy and grow your own yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) plants or just buy certified organic yaupon holly tea made here in the US. 

KIGI,

Tyrantfarms

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