For the Ecuadorian Kichwa people, the day starts at 3 a.m.
Rising from slumber, the Kichwa brew a huge gourd of guayusa, a caffeinated tea made from the Amazonian plant of the same name. Gathered around the fire, they recount their dreams from the night before, share stories, and even recite myths and legends passed down over generations.
In the dark of night, the Kichwa drink guayusa once again. Before setting out into the Amazon, hunters consume this tea to heighten their awareness and become more attuned to the workings of the rainforest. Hunters will rub the leaf all over their bodies, hoping that coating themselves the plant they call "the night watchman" will keep them safe in the treacherous environment.
But the benefits of guayusa—the tea some are hailing as the best form of "clean energy"—extend far beyond any protective powers. One cup contains about as much caffeine as a cup of coffee, but this kind of buzz feels completely different than coffee jitters.
Unlike any other coffee or tea, this drink calms the central nervous system while it stimulates the body—leaving you alert and focused without feeling anxious or nervous. Plus, guayusa is packed with polyphenols, a type of antioxidant known for fighting free radicals.
The taste of this drink is also worlds apart from the flavor you might expect from coffee or black tea. Coffee, black tea, and yerba mate all contain tannins, compounds that give them a bitter flavor. Guayusa, on the other hand, has a very low tannin content that leaves this tea with a lightly sweet, naturally smooth flavor.
The Kichwa have enjoyed the benefits of this naturally caffeinated tea for generations, but only recently has guayusa become available outside of the rainforest.
When Tyler Gage first tasted this plant on a trip to Ecuador, he saw a bigger market for it. He co-founded Runa, and with the help of the Kichwa, became the first to bring this plant cousin of yerba mate to the United States.
In the Ecuadorian rainforest, the main way the indigenous people earn money is through logging. Though few want to harm the ecosystem their culture has revered for so long, most people saw little choice—until Gage and his business partners arrived on the scene.
"[Through logging] they're often damaging sacred spaces they've valued for centuries," Chris Kajander, Runa's Director of Marketing, explains. "For these communities, the rainforest is basically their supermarket and their pharmacy."
Working with Runa is an attractive business proposition for many of these communities. Instead of damaging their rainforest home, 3,000 families farm shade-grown guayusa plants on their own land. This model is drastically different from the massive plantations where most tea—even fair-trade tea—is harvested.
To build this community-based infrastructure, the founders of Runa spent three years in Ecuador. Though the indigenous people have been drinking guayusa for centuries, the Kichwa were initially doubtful that anyone in the U.S. would be interested. Eventually, the locals gave the company a shot—perhaps more out of concern for their home than anything else.
"The environment down there is changing really rapidly, and they want to participate," Kajander says. "They view this as their contribution, in some ways."
Photo credit: Paul Delmont