Q&A: Bryon White, Co-Founder & CEO, Yaupon Brothers American Tea Co.

Bryon White (right), co-founder and CEO of Yaupon Brothers American Tea Co., with his brother Kyle White, co-founder and director of sales. (Courtesy of Yaupon Brothers)

hBryon White, co-founder and CEO of Yaupon Brothers American Tea Co., chats with World Tea News about his business and how his tea products (or herbal tisanes) all stem from the Yaupon Holly plant itself, which is a native North American species.

For thousands of years, indigenous people the Southeast United States drank an infusion of Yaupon leaves and water to purify the body and mind, and to bestow energy and clarity on the drinker, according to Yaupon Brothers. Later on, Yaupon energized European colonizers and early Americans before fading into obscurity for over 200 years. Today, the science behind Yaupon’s properties demonstrates that it offers numerous health benefits.

Bryon White – Photo: Courtesy of Yaupon Brothers American Tea Co.

For White and his team at Yaupon Brothers, their teas are a true labor of love. Each leaf is hand-plucked, carefully dried or fire-roasted, graded and milled, and hand-packed in the company’s facility in Edgewater, Fla. They do not outsource any aspect of production, and their regenerative agriculture model focuses on Yaupon Holly as a sustainable native crop that require fewer inputs, such as pesticides, fertilizers, and herbicides.

The Specialty Food Association (SFA) recently presented White with a 2021 Leadership Award, honoring him as an innovative entrepreneur who’s transforming the industry.

White shares more about Yaupon Brothers American Tea Co. and Yaupon Holly in this Q&A.

Kyle White (left) and Bryon White (right) – Photo: Courtesy of Yaupon Brothers

Question: Thanks for your time, Bryon! How did Yaupon Brothers American Tea Co. come about?

Answer: About a decade ago, I was walking through the woods near my home, when I noticed a big thicket of Yaupon growing wild. I just really liked it. I’ve always been into plants, and I would commonly research plants I thought were cool, so that’s what I did with Yaupon. I found a book titled The Black Drink by Charles Hudson, the late anthropologist from the University of Georgia, and the book talked about Yaupon’s use as a food, medicine and ceremonial purifier by indigenous people in the Southeast. I also learned that Yaupon is the only caffeinated plant native to the USA. I was totally fascinated. I thought that it must taste bad or someone would be selling it as at that time, there was no Yaupon commercially available as food product. I made some anyways, tried a bunch of recipes, and forced them on friends and family. To my delight, everyone loved the tea, and the business just sort of evolved from there.

Question: Tell us more about Yaupon Holly. What are the health benefits?

Answer: Yaupon is special in a lot of ways. Firstly, it is our only caffeinated plant. Aside from that, Yaupon is an antioxidant powerhouse, and some research has indicated that it can reduce inflammation and also the prevalence of certain forms of cancer. It also has a lot less tannin than Camellia sinensis, so it’s not bitter and won’t oversteep.

Question: What tea products does your company offer?

Answer: Yaupon Brothers offers a wide range of products, including loose-leaf Yaupon, bulk ingredient Yaupon, and quite a bit of our business is in sachets. We try to develop interesting and delicious flavors; for example, one of our most popular is Lavender Coconut Yaupon. We also offer Florida Chai, American Green, Revive Mint and our Fire-Roasted Yaupon, which is a homage to the way indigenous people prepared Yaupon leaves by fire-roasting them. We also try to use native ingredients wherever possible. For instance, we offered a limited edition blend this month made with Florida-native Calamint. We like to have fun with blending different flavor profiles. It’s one of my favorite parts of the job!

Photo: Courtesy of Yaupon Brothers

Question: While Yaupon Holly is the main ingredient of your teas, what are some of the other ingredients you use in your blends?

Answer: We love to use interesting ingredients like cacao nibs, native mints and sages, and sometimes even exotic liqueurs and the like. Our main blends contain more straight-forward ingredients. Like for instance, our Florida Chai contains Yaupon, cardamom, ginger, cinnamon, peppercorn and clove. All of our ingredients are organic, and we carry both a USDA grower and processor organic certification.

Question: How popular is your tea subscription service? Looks like you blend special Yaupon Holly teas each month.

Answer: We recently rolled out the subscription service, which we call our “Brew Crew,” and it is definitely growing in popularity. This is where I really have fun with ingredients, and the customers really seem to enjoy it. For December, we used a Florida-native mint species called Calamint, which is just delicious. In November, we blended Yaupon with organic Florida-grown Tulsi from Frog Song Farms, and in October, we made a blend with roasted Yaupon, Ecuadorian cacao nibs from MiCacao, and elderflower liqueur. Who knows what’s next?!

Question: Tell us about the production process of your Yaupon Holly teas. Did you study Camellia sinensis tea production and apply any of those lessons to your business?

Answer: We did look at traditional tea processing, and we incorporated some of those practices and equipment into Yaupon production, but the Yaupon leaf is quite different from tea. We do use withering troughs, and some other tea equipment, but much of our equipment was built by our co-founder, Mark Steele, who is a former USAF fighter pilot and a retired Delta Airlines captain. He just has a knack for this sort of thing, and he saw what we needed and built our specialized equipment from there. 

Question: Have other tea companies been interested in purchasing Yaupon Holly leaves from you to use as an ingredient?

Answer: Absolutely. We gladly sell our Yaupon to other tea companies, and other Yaupon producers have done the same. It’s a fantastic product that is easy to blend with other flavors and ingredients. 

Question: You brand your business as an “American Tea Company.” Tell us about that.

Answer: It sort of goes back to what the consumer thinks about “tea.” Of course, tea aficionados probably would not consider Yaupon a “tea,” but more of a caffeinated herbal tisane. We have found that most of our customers don’t really care about the semantics, and they recognize any sort of infusion as a “tea.” In that regard, we wanted to show consumers that Yaupon is special and different because it is a caffeine source that is not imported into the U.S., but one that is produced domestically. This removes a lot of the opacity from the supply chain. We’re really proud of the transparency and traceability that Yaupon can provide. It’s not really what we would consider a “Yaupon vs. Tea” thing, but it does provide an alternative for customers who are looking for one, and I think that’s a really good thing, because Yaupon can be grown successfully without causing any sort of damage to the environment. That’s a real differentiator in the Ag space.

Question: What kind of response have you received from the global tea industry and from retailers?

Answer: I would say that all-in-all the response has been very positive. Consumers and businesses alike all enjoy having more options. Yaupon is just another one of those, and it really fills a niche that is difficult for tea producers, since it is so difficult to grow Camellia sinensis in most parts of the United States, with a few exceptions.

Question: You sell your products online as well as wholesale to retailers. What do you want potential retailers to know about your business?

Answer: We want retailers to see the value in an American-grown caffeine source that is highly scalable and native to the region. It can be grown without pesticides or fertilizers, and it has a great story with over 8,000 of consumption in North America. We feel that now more than ever, consumers want to know where their food comes from. They want to see the provenance in their food products, and the choice to make a purchase is increasingly driven by a set of values that Yaupon really appeals to. It’s about local fare and flavor, sustainability, and a transparent supply chain. Yaupon is hard to beat in those areas.

Question: Do you offer any support to retailers who want to sell your products?

Answer: Of course! We are working to roll-out a new QR code on our eco-tube products with Digifresh, which will provide customers with an interactive “story line” explaining the history, process, and story of our brand and products. This can be expanded to point-of-sale displays, too. We also offer demos, (COVID-19 permitting), and wide-ranging resources and educational materials for customers to access.

Question: What challenges and hurdles did you first encounter when you launched Yaupon Brothers American Tea Co.?

Answer: The biggest challenge for us and all Yaupon suppliers, has been building a supply chain from scratch. It really is a massive undertaking, but one that is growing and has been deeply rewarding. The second-biggest challenge has been filling in the awareness deficit and educating both consumers and retailers about Yaupon. That one is going to take a while, but it is amazing how much progress and growth our small industry has experienced in a relatively short time.

Question: What advice do you have for others who want to start a tea-related business?

Answer: Focus on your product and your brand first, and everything else will fall into place. Customers must always have a great experience. That’s what keeps them coming back!

Question: What sets Yaupon Brothers apart from other tea companies, other than the leaf you use?

Answer: I want to say it is our deep commitment to our values: making great Yaupon teas, creating good jobs with sustainable agriculture, protecting and conserving the environment, and respecting the indigenous cultures that originated Yaupon use. Thankfully though, I see so many more businesses these days that are deeply committed to values. It’s a great transformation that is happening, and more and more entrepreneurs are seeing themselves as community problem-solvers serving a fiduciary role wherever they are.

Question: What creative things have you done to promote your business and build your customer base?

Answer: We try to be genuine and transparent as much as possible. We pull back the curtain and let customers see inside our operation. We feel that people crave authenticity, so we give it to them. It’s not really that creative, but it does seem to work. Also, we routinely work other creative folks on collaborations. That has been a fun way to get our Yaupon to customers who otherwise might not learn about it.

Question: Thanks for your time! Last question: You’re a self-proclaimed plant nerd. What do you, as a plant nerd, want the traditional tea industry to know about Yaupon Holly?

Answer: I would like the traditional tea industry to know that many of the producers in that industry mentor and inspire people like me to create products that are in-touch with nature and provide great value to consumers. It has taken thousands of years for the Camellia sinensis trade to get to where it is today, and I hope the Yaupon industry looks that good in a few millennia. I also try and show people that Yaupon is actually an ancient food product, just working to bring it back into the limelight.

To learn more, visit YauponBrothers.com.