To ranchers, the yaupon tree can be a pest. Part of the holly family, the native Texan tree will take over if you let it. To Nick Panzarella, though, it’s a flavorful, sustainable ingredient, hidden in plain sight.
He uses yaupon leaves to brew and bottle a tea called cassina through his company, Wild South Tea, the first native tea company in Houston. “It’s a native product that we’re bringing to light in our culture,” Panzarella says. “This plant grows wild, so instead of having to destroy a forest to get it, you can keep the forest and go in and pick it. It’s basically creating value for wild spaces.”
Panzarella first learned about yaupon as a Boy Scout. He began to experiment with roasting the leaves harvested on his uncle’s farm in New Caney while working at Revival Market in the Heights. Over time, he experimented with different recipes and techniques.
He also did his research, reading texts by French and Spanish missionaries about their encounters with Native Americans who drank cassina in purging rituals, and even traveling to Argentina and Brazil to learn about yerba mate, the heavily caffeinated, traditional drink also made from a local herb. “It’s part of being Argentine,” Panzarella says, “and I thought it would be cool if cassina was part of being Texan.”
Yaupon tea tastes like a cross between green and black teas. It contains antioxidants and is naturally caffeinated, but unlike coffee, it won’t make you crash, instead providing a slower, steadier energy surge. Panzarella says he drinks coffee in the morning but prefers the mellower energy of cassina for the afternoon.
Wild South Tea is currently sold at 21 locations, mostly in the Heights area. Panzarella is also eying grocery stores for possible distribution. Soon, cassina could be everywhere—just like the yaupon.