EDGEWATER — After a strong storm swept through his hometown of New Smyrna Beach about 10 years ago, Bryon White noticed that among the damaged vegetation, one particular plant was stronger than the others.

This was the start of his fascination with the yaupon holly – a tree native to the southeastern United States whose leaves had been used by Native Americans to make tea for thousands of years.

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White, along with his brother, Kyle, and business partner, Mark Steele, founded Yaupon Brothers in 2015, guided not only by their business venture, but also by their passion behind the origins and importance of yaupon in Native American culture.

On February 19, they opened a new Yaupon Brothers tea factory in the ParkTowne Industrial Center in Edgewater after two years of planning and construction. The factory also has a cafe, a gift shop and space for customers who wish to participate in one of the two daily factory tours.

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Providing visitors with the opportunity to not only purchase yaupon tea, but also learn about its history is an important part of the company’s mission.

“It’s not just a tea – it’s a sacrament,” White said. “It is something sacred to countless indigenous cultures, some of which still exist today, and it has been totally erased from society. It is a consequence of the erasure of native culture in America.

White learned through his research that the consumption of yaupon tea dates back approximately 8,000 years. It wasn’t until about 200 years ago that general knowledge of tea began to fade.

“It’s kind of a maddening story,” White said. “But we see this as helping to restore this incredible product to its rightful place. It was still America’s first cup, and people just need to remember it, learn about it.

In the wild, the yaupon holly grows to about 30 feet and is native to the southeastern United States. Although there are several different types of yaupon trees, the company values ​​the larger leaves of the wild yaupon holly for tea production.

“It’s salt-tolerant, drought-tolerant and can handle large amounts of water,” said Shelly Steele, chief operating officer of Yaupon Brothers.

The size of yaupon trees depends on the location; the size ranges from central Florida to the Gulf of Mexico to Texas, and along the east coast to Virginia, Steele said.

“We recognize as a company that wild harvesting is not scalable, so our vision is to empower local farmers to use yaupon as an alternative crop,” Steele said. “These are suited to growing here, so once they’re rooted you’re off to the races – less water, no pesticides.”

Modernized process

The new factory has an area of ​​approximately 6,000 square feet. Most of the tea leaves produced at Edgewater are harvested from a 70-acre wilderness area in New Smyrna Beach, which is made possible through an agreement between the company and the city.

Sheets arrive at the factory in 30 to 40 pound lots. They are washed, sanitized, wrung out and placed in bins where they are left to dry for about four days – the leaves arrive with about 52% moisture content and are dried to 7%.

“Eventually we’ll add more and more to this room, and then build our ability to dry more and more leaves,” White said.

He said many yaupon companies today use “a lot of heat in the desiccation process, which is a lot faster, but it’s just not as good.”

“We hear that all the time,” White said. “People try ours and they say ‘That’s way better.

Once the leaves are dry, they are taken to a grinding room, where they are ground into particles of uniform grain size (between 4 and 6 millimeters) in a process that also rids them of any residual dust. They are then put on a sieve, separating the large pieces from the small ones.

When ready for production, they go into a tea bag or go through another process to be mixed with other ingredients. Sixteen tea bags of the finished product are then placed in a box that White calls “eco tubes,” which can be purchased from several retailers, including Whole Foods, Amazon, and even the Yaupon Brothers website.

An ice cold cup of their mint-flavored yaupon tea, for example, showcases the sweetness of the leaf, making it smoother and less sharp and bitter than other tea flavors. One reason for this, White said, is the lack of tannin (a chemical found in many plant species) in yaupon.

“We’re just bringing it back”

Getting into the business wasn’t something White “naturally knew how to do” all those years ago after being a beach security guard for 15 years.

“I got into this at the very beginning, not knowing how to make tea, how to make food, not knowing anything about business, entrepreneurship, none of that stuff,” White said.

The company is building another plant in Mississippi, which will be about 48,000 square feet and will focus on developing “quirky, fun flavors that evoke the Mississippi Delta,” White said.

He added that “part of what we are doing is re-examining the food system that has always been there and how to modernize it for modern consumers.”

“Yaupon was not sold commercially for nearly 200 years,” he said. “Two hundred years ago it was very popular – not just with indigenous people, but with everyone.”

Free daily tours offered at the new factory at 504 Pullman Road in Edgewater begin at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. For more information, call 386-243-0241 or visit yauponbrothers.com.

“We’re just bringing it back,” White said. “We didn’t discover it, we didn’t create it, it’s always been there for 8,000 years and we’re just reintroducing it in a modern way.”