What’s green, warm, and is not warm green tea? For centuries, the people of Peru have chewed the leaves of the Erythoxylin coca plant. Ethnobotanists like Wade Davis, Andrew Weil, and Joel Hanna have studies the leaf, and recommend its consumption. It’s known for its digestive, uplifting, and hunger-stifling properties, as well as brewing into a flavorful medicinal tisane. As a quick note, coca tisane is constantly referred to as coca tea, but it does not contain any actual tea or caffeine.
Coca is a leafy shrub native to South America. It was discovered, according to the Quechua tradition (Quechua being the language spoken by the native peoples of Peru and the surrounding area), by a grieving Mamachia, searching for her child. In a moment of grief, she chewed absent-mindedly on a leaf, and found it gave her comfort, while suppressing her hunger.
Coca is ingested by the Quechua either as the raw leaf for chewing, flour for baking, or boiled as a tisane. Its use as a tisane was prescribed by Dr. Weil as a cure for the dizziness and nausea caused by altitude sickness in the altitudinous Andes.
Now for the white elephant in the room. Yes, cocaine is made from the leaves of the coca plant. The coca plant contains the alkaloid cocaine, along with eighteen other alkaloids. Through a complicated process involving toxic pits full of volatile chemicals, the cocaine alkaloid is concentrated into an infamous white powder. Coca tisane therefore contains cocaine; however, the concentration of cocaine by weight is very low in the coca leaves (less than 1%). The most important fact about the coca-cocaine relationship is that coca is imbued with a mix of alkaloids. The other alkaloids and compounds present in coca mediate the absorption and effect of cocaine once it gets into the bloodstream. An additional mitigator is the low amount of coca present in the coca tisane, about a gram a teabag. Comparing coca to cocaine has been said by Wade Davis to be comparable to tea and snorting pure caffeine powder.
Coca tisane has a few pleasant physiological effects though. It is an excellent cure for nausea. Coca tisane will give you a uplifting buzz, with a feeling of warmth and energy, but you’re not going to get high off of it. The effects are not in the least long-lasting, and in my experience, are much less intense than those of caffeine drinks. Coca tisane is less stimulating than coffee, matcha, or even a stiff cup of English breakfast. It sure ain’t white tea, but you’re not reliving the 80’s.
Tastewise, coca tisane is very similar to green tea. It contains the grassy element that is prominent in Japanese sencha, and an excellent smooth quality. It’s sweet at first, but the small quantities of alkaloids cause a bitter aftertaste that can result in a faint tingling sensation in the mouth. Altogether; it is a very pleasant drink.
The legality of this tea is an issue. Coca is not legal in the US, due to the fraudulent and downright racist report of the 1950 “Report of the Commission of Enquiry on the Coca Leaf” to the UN, which established coca as narcotic in 1962. A four-man team, composed of two doctors, a businessman heavily invested in the pharmaceutical industry, and the head of the Narcotics Bureau of France found an effective, natural medicine and restorative used for centuries among the native peoples of Peru to cause malnutrition and an inability to advance socially. To acquire coca tea, one must either go to Peru, or order teabags online. I found some when I visited a local Peruvian cafe. The tea wasn’t on the menu, but the owner happily brought some out from behind the counter when I asked.
In the end though, coca is actually an already popular character in the American drink scene. Coca-cola is flavoured using the oils (Decoccainized, or course) of E. novovgranese, a wintergreen-imbued variant of the coca plant. Coca tea: it’s the pause that refreshes.
Loading image courtesy of Ben Dane. IMAGE 1:
Ben Dane is a freshman at The University of British Columbia in Vancouver, B.C. He works part time in a tea shop, and has completed the first course toward certification as Genuine Tea Geek.