January 29, 2016

Defining Tea + Cat Spring Yaupon Tea Review

Christopher Plummer and Julie Andrews on location in Salzburg during the filming of The Sound of Music, 1964
via Wikimedia Commons

One of my favorite definitions of tea is from the Sound of Music. "Tea, a drink with jam and bread," sang Maria played by Julie Andrews. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary has several definitions:
1a: a shrub (Camellia sinensis of the family Theaceae, the tea family) cultivated especially in China, Japan, and the East Indies
1b: the leaves, leaf buds, and internodes of the tea plant prepared and cured for the market, classed according to method of manufacture into one set of types (as green tea, black tea, or oolong), and graded according to leaf size into another (as orange pekoe, pekoe, or souchong)
2: an aromatic beverage prepared from tea leaves by infusion with boiling water
3a: any of various plants somewhat resembling tea in properties; also: an infusion of their leaves used medicinally or as a beverage
3b: tea rose
4a: refreshments usually including tea with sandwiches, crackers, or cookies served in late afternoon
4b: a reception, snack, or meal at which tea is served
5 (slang): marijuana
Leaves of Camellia sinensis varieties
via Wikimedia Commons

Leaving aside definitions 3b through 5, it seems that the primary definitions of tea are (1a) the actual plant, Camellia sinensis, and its varieties and cultivars; (1b, 2) the beverage derived from steeping the leaves of C. sinensis in hot water (but cold infusions are very good, too); and (3a) other beverages prepared with plants that are not C. sinensis. The latter are known as tisanes or herbals and can be made with herbs and spices, singly or combined. Even legumes are used in herbals. Rooibos, Aspalathus linearis, is a member of the legume family.

There is some concern in the C. sinensis camp that tisanes/herbals are being incorrectly classified as tea. It's rather like the discussion about appellation d'origins contrôlée (AOC) for various foods and beverages. I don't think there are any C. sinensis derived teas with an AOC but Darjeeling is a candidate and tea producers in that region are seeking certification according to Jeff Koehler in Darjeeling: The Colorful History and Precarious Fate of the World’s Greatest Tea. However, I don't think a designation has ever been applied (or sought) for a beverage category. In any case, I refer to C. sinensis derived teas as tea and try to use tisane or herbal when describing non C. sinensis derived beverages but it's not something I strictly adhere to.

There is another piece to the distinction between tea and tisane/herbal. Caffeine. The latter are typically caffeine free. The leaves of the C. sinensis plant contain 5-6% caffeine. There are other plants that are prepared as tea that contain caffeine but don't fall into the traditional tisane/herbal category. One is yerba mate. I am familiar with yerba mate and I think most of you reading this post have either heard of the drink or have drunk it. Yerba mate is derived from a rainforest holly native to South America. Another plant that contains caffeine which is prepared as a tea is guarana. I don't have any experience with this plant. Yet a third caffeine containing plant is yaupon. This is a new-to-me tea beverage. Yaupon, also a holly, is native to the SE US.

Cat Spring Tea Yaupon


I prepared two types of Yaupon Tea, both loose leaf: Black and It's Not Easy Being Green. The latter was blended with organic green rooibos, organic ginger, organic lemongrass, and organic compliant lime flavoring. Admittedly, I did not enjoy my first session with either tea. The black yaupon was very smoky. The second time I prepared it, and I cannot say what I did differently, the smoky note was less intense. I detected a chicory note both times which with milk and sugar might make it taste like a New Orleans style coffee. Black yaupon might be a candidate for an American style Iribancha.


The dry green yaupon has the warming aroma of one of my favorite spices, ginger. Unfortunately for me, lemongrass was the primary taste in the liquor. I sweetened the tea with maple syrup which successfully masked the lemongrass. The lemongrass was also prominent during the second session. but I also detected lime. I am wary of flavorings in tea so am a bit concerned about the lime. This is a hypocritical stance since I know I consume foods with added flavor.

The story behind Cat Spring Tea is a compelling one. I like that the company is small and women owned. Also, the artworks on their pouches are really cool and are reprints of vividly colored paper collages by the American artist Dolan Geiman.

Update: This post was edited on Jan. 31, 2016: *Disclosure: The Latin name for yaupon is Ilex vomitoria. I listened to the NPR Tea Tuesday feature on Cat Spring Tea and yaupon while writing this post. The plant is not emetic according to the story, however, the USDA says otherwise. The NPR story notes Yaupon's Latin name is a misnomer because the plant is not an emetic. Ingesting the leaves does not cause vomiting, but eating the berries can cause nausea and vomiting according to this USDA Yaupon factsheet. My sincere apologies for not reporting on the specific part of the plant that is emetic. I did not mean to imply that Yaupon tea can result in vomiting. I would like to thank Maridel Martinez of Texas Yaupon Tea for her email which prompted me to read the factsheet again and to update this post.

Teas courtesy of Cat Spring Tea.

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