Guayusa, WTF? An interview with James Elliot, co-founder of The Guayusa Co

Guayusa, WTF? An interview with James Elliot, co-founder of The Guayusa Co

The drinks innovator bringing the magic of Guayusa to a nation of coffee and tea drinkers 

In 2015, Londoner James Elliot turned his passion for this Ecuadorian “super leaf” (one of the plants in Three Spirit Livener) into a business by launching The Guayusa Co which, today, champions the positive possibilities the plant offers to both people and planet. This inventive brand has since created iced teas, energy shots, raw vegan guayusa-infused chocolate and even a prototype guayusa kombucha, so we jumped at the chance to get to know James! 

Tell us a bit about yourself.  

I was born in Balham, London, in the July ‘76 heatwave. I grew up in Streatham and Crystal Palace and I now live in Beckenham. The bulk of my ‘normal’ career has been leading digital teams in the UK charity sector across animal welfare, healthcare and international development as well as plant science and conservation at Kew Gardens. I also had an online record shop before my time in the charity world. We even had a little physical shop in Highgate near the tube station, called ‘Second Layer Records’. I’ve always wanted to make sure that I give my working time to cause-based organisations and I’m so determined to make The Guayusa Co the kind of company I’d like to work at. 

Photo: James with two prototype energy shots at a market in South London, June 2018.

Guayusa - what is it? What are the origins? 

Guayusa is a caffeinated leaf that primarily grows in the upper regions of Ecuador, where the Amazon rainforest meets the foothills of the Andes. It’s important, and interesting, to mention that it’s a species of holly and it doesn’t - and shouldn’t - disappear into the sea of ‘herbals’ and ‘infusions’ when sitting on a supermarket shelf. It really can stand next to regular tea and coffee as a solid, energising and tasty everyday alternative source of caffeine, that’s also much kinder to the body.

I first heard of guayusa while reading this National Geographic article, and although this may sound strange, I knew I wanted to build a sustainable business around this leaf before I’d even tasted it. I found one person selling it on eBay, ordered some and fell in love instantly and just ‘knew’ I had to start selling it. After giving up coffee for guayusa overnight, it then took me about a year to find a decent wholesale supplier, build a website and get a basic homemade brand off the ground. We went live with the business in June 2015 and since then we’ve had thousands of customers not only through our main website, but also our Amazon, eBay and Etsy stores too. 

Picture: Guayusa leaves growing in Tena, Ecuadorian Amazon.

The oldest archaeological evidence of guayusa being used by humans was in a bundle of perfectly bound leaves 
dated to be 1,500 years old in the tomb of a ‘medicine man’ in Bolivia. Given that guayusa didn’t grow in Bolivia, this indicates that guayusa was an important item for trade. Different Amazonian communities use it to varying degrees and also for different purposes and has been found growing in Peru, Colombia and Venezuela. The most famous users and producers of guayusa are the wonderful Kichwa in Ecuador, who grow and harvest the guayusa that we use in our products. 

Picture: Guayusa leaf bundles found in Bolivian tomb, 1,500 A.D.

The Kichwa drink guayusa every day, and start very early in the morning with a guayusa ceremony, where they gather together before sunrise to discuss and interpret their dreams, tell stories and plan for the day while drinking it from a large pot that boils over a large central fire. I’ve been fortunate to be able to attend a ceremony with the Kichwa and it was a really magical and unforgettable experience.

Picture: Kichwa woman at a guayusa ceremony.

The Kichwa have a wonderful story relating to the origins of guayusa that goes something along the lines of these two twin brothers, twins, were canoeing down a river. While they slept on the banks of the river one night, they awoke, and there, on the other side of the river, a spirit village had appeared. They crossed the river to enter the village and went up a staircase inside a palace which led to the heavens and there they met generation after generation of their ancestors. The ancestors gave them a plant and told them this would help their people to dream. When the twins woke up the next day the plant was beside them where they’d slept. This plant was guayusa and they took it back to their village where it went on to become an integral part of their culture and connected the people to the realm of dreams

Can you tell us more about how you source your guayusa? 

The beating heart of commercial guayusa production is in the region of Archidona and Tena where all our guayusa originates. We believe our guayusa is the best on the market - not only because of its great taste and energising effect - but also because of the care our supplier takes throughout the process and the integrity of the hardworking Kichwa farmers who work in very tough conditions to make this leaf available to us. Guayusa grows in very hilly, muddy, humid rainforest terrain and has to come out in sacks on people’s backs. 

Harvesting and drinking guayusa has been part of life in these communities for thousands of years, and by selling the tea the Kichwa are now able to earn income from it too. Nearly all of the guayusa we sell comes from ‘Chacras’, which are small, family-owned farms and our supplier promotes the use of agroforestry in the production of their guayusa. This means that guayusa is grown as part of a mix of other native plants which also provide income for the farmers such as cacao, yucca and lemongrass. 

Pictures: Visiting a Chacra in Tena.

Our supplier implements training projects in these communities and pays them 15% more than the Fairtrade rate for their guayusa. That’s why our guayusa is a little more expensive - it costs us more, because the farmers are paid more, and this is really important to us. Also, we have been making a huge effort to be plastic-free as a business. 

We’re also members of 1% For the Planet which means we donate 1% of our turnover to environmental charities. We’re supporting Thames 21 who look after the Thames and its tributaries here in London and the Ecuadorian Rivers Institute who look after rivers in the regions where guayusa grows.

Why do you think so few people have heard of Guayusa and why is it important that people have access to this plant?

Being a species of holly, it’s rather more associated with Christmas than with ‘tasty hot energising drinks’ so that’s definitely a factor! In the UK, ‘normal’ tea and coffee are cultural institutions which already meet the need for a warming caffeine hit, so people simply aren’t aware that there are better alternatives. But I think now, we’re starting to see people seeking cleaner sources of caffeine energy, alongside wider trends of shunning alcohol, sober raving, plant-based eating, living healthier and generally becoming more conscious about what's in their products, where they are from and who made them. 

Also, over time, other plants will need to step in to keep meeting people’s desire for caffeine. Over 60% of wild coffee species are at risk of extinction, so in time yields may go down and prices will go up. There are almost 500 species of holly in the world and some are caffeinated, so these are guayusa Ilex guayusa, yerba mate Ilex paraguariensis (found within Three Spirit Social Elixir), the Yaupon holly Ilex vomitoria, native to North America and Ilex kaushue used in a Chinese brew called ‘Kuding’. But, really, none of these are very well known, certainly not in the UK and Europe. Obviously, yerba mate is massive in Brazil and Argentina, and in the US, Guayaki has popularised it as a canned clean energy drink. The Yaupon holly is having a wonderful resurgence via some great brands in the staes such as The Yaupon Brothers, YAYAYA Yaupon and Yahola Tea.

While yerba mate is the most well known, it’s quite polarising in its taste. Unlike yerba mate or green tea, which both have high tannin content, guayusa didn’t inherit the ‘bitter gene’ and has virtually no tannins. Some of our customers have tannin allergies and have been so happy to find Guayusa and that they can enjoy an energising tea again.

Picture: Guayusa bundles. 

Interestingly, guayusa almost became popular in the late 1800s when a famous Victorian botanist called Richard Spruce wrote enthusiastically about it to Kew Gardens back. He suggested it could ‘successfully compete in the English market against the inferior sorts of tea’ (to which he was referring to ‘normal’ teas, derived from Camellia sinensis). I managed to find the original copy of this letter when I worked at Kew Gardens with the help of the amazing library team. Also, in my time working at Kew, I found some very old specimens of guayusa in Kew’s incredible Herbarium

Picture: Viewing old specimens of Guayusa held in Kew’s magical Herbarium.

Guayusa’s effects on the body are often described as being more gentle in feeling than the caffeine effect from a cup of coffee or regular energy drink, having no ‘jitters’ or anxiety-inducing effects. It really will wake you up just not in such an aggressive way, it’s like a long sustained push of energy which disappears with no crash at all. It’s got a very smooth taste and is perfect on its own or if you create a stronger brew it’s very good with all kinds of milks from dairy to nut to oat. Try it with honey, maple syrup or agave nectar for sweetener. It also makes an amazing iced tea, kombucha and even, if you buy our powder, you can use it in shakes, bakes and chocolate.

We’re even seeing it becoming used in skincare products. Interestingly, many Kichwa will wipe guayusa water on their body which some suggest prevents the aging of the skin. Some Kichwa even use warm guayusa water to bathe their children.

Photo: Guayusa becoming an active ingredient in beauty products. 

Guayusa has up to double the antioxidants of green tea, so this is another candidate for a reason why it’s so good for body synergy. Guayusa also contains theobromine - the ‘feel good’ stimulant found in chocolate - which is why a cup of our tea can have a calming function. 

What do you do to feel good? 

I’m most content spending time with my daughter and or sitting down to play my acoustic guitars. I really like a long bath with Himalayan salts to unwind. Also lighting some candles at the end of the day and spending the evenings in candlelight is something I’ve been doing lately as well. It gives a nice vibe to the room and helps signal the shift from working day to a change in gear and activity to ‘downtime’. 

What are you doing to keep chill during corona? Any tips? 

For me, keeping away from too much news is key. Of course I’d always have a cup of guayusa nearby to give that chilledness some clarity and focus :) To get out we’ve been going to the park on our scooters - I’m thinking about getting a couple of electric ones to make it a bit more exciting. I’m also trying to eat well and get enough rest and just keep my head and home environment as neat and balanced as possible. 

How is business so far? 

Year on year sales are up so we seem to be doing ok and are keeping business as usual going as best we can and still getting all our orders out to our wonderful customers. We’ve some big plans this year which we’re progressing along nicely in the background too, so do follow us on our social channels for updates on all the things we’re doing. 

We’ve also had some change in management of the company where there are now three of us in charge. Our long time designer, Hailey, came on board as a Director in March as did our mutual friend, Mark. We all met through being neighbours in the building we live in South London.

Picture: James, Mark and Hailey. 

As I mentioned, there are a lot of development opportunities for guayusa as a multi-faceted root product, so we have to keep ourselves focussed on one thing at a time. But longer-term we hope to develop everything from more blends of tea, to skincare products, to no-alcohol beer, to ready to drink lines in bottles or cans and I’m very interested in energy edibles.

Picture: Our new boxes of teabags.

Do you have any good tips or stories for anyone out there who wants to start their own business?

Well, anyone with an idea, I’d just say do it and make sure of course it’s all built around something you truly love and enjoy - make a start now - as small a scale as possible, and self-fund as long as you can. Get some kind of MVP (minimum viable product) out there as early as possible to start testing and gathering feedback from your audience. I’m told and believe that starting small and growing organically are the best ways to create a solid brand. You’ll then have the luxury of building authenticity with a rich backstory which brands that just ‘appear’ aren’t able to create. The internet and the speed with which you can reach audiences and present and sell your products are so fast - do embrace digital as it will be a powerful ally. 

Also if you want to get ranking well in search engines, the older the website you have the better, so get something launched now and keep adding relevant and interesting content which you can market out on your social channels - in time this will help you a great deal. 

It’s important to say you have to be prepared for the long haul and the need to put yourself out there, work late, dig deep and generate your own good luck. You really have to be obsessed with your product and vision - then you can use this obsession to power you through the peaks and troughs. 

Know that there will be hard times - things will go wrong, you might be entering an arena you know little about and you’ll make mistakes and learn hard lessons where only you will be accountable. What I find really heartwarming and empowering is the new connections and support that comes from meeting other entrepreneurs who go on to become friends when starting your own venture when you just put yourself out there. 

Favourite Three Spirit drink? 

I recently polished off a whole bottle of the Nightcap in about five evenings, so it’s fair to say I enjoyed it very much! It really helped me decompress at the end of the day and added an extra chilled element to my evening time. It tastes so soothing, delicious, and full of botanical goodness - my favourite way is just straight, on ice. Of course I am a fan of the Livener as it contains our favourite ingredient, guayusa! Adding the Social Elixir to the mix makes for a perfect night. It’s really inspiring how these three drinks have been created with these intertwining functions/settings in mind. Nice work guys! 

We know you’re into plants and functional ingredients, any faves? 

Well, I’d have to, of course, place guayusa at the top of the list - and honestly, I drink it all day long and I joke that about 80% of my bloodstream is generally guayusa these days (it’s probably true). But in terms of other brands and drinks I’m a big fan of are, of course, Three Spirit and everything you’re doing, I also love Hip Pop (who use our Guayusa in their kombucha and they just taste incredible) and JARR Kombucha and we were proud to supply our guayusa for limited edition kombucha for The P(our) Symposium in Paris… that’s our friend Adam there on stage telling people all about the superleaf!

Picture: Adam Vanni from JARR Kombucha talking about Guayusa at the P(our) Symposium in Paris.

Then Moju (I do love a good ginger shot - as strong as possible, please!) and OG Juice are doing some great things in the cold-pressed arena. I admire what Tenzing has done and there’s some other great emerging brands using guayusa such as Psyc drinks too. An American kombucha company called Presto sent us a bottle of their guayusa kombucha and it was really amazing.

Picture: Presto’s Guayusa kombucha. 

I like that yerba mate is finding its way to the mainstream through brands like Virtue - I enjoy their cans of energy drink. Runa (the company that started the whole commercial Guayusa movement in America) are heading to Europe soon. Their canned drinks are very nice and you can certainly feel and taste the power of the guayusa in them. I have to also really highly rate Yaupon Broth holly tea - it’s a little like Guayusa in taste but also unique all in itself. I managed to order a few of the Yaupon Brother’s blends and they were all spectacular teas. 

Picture: Amazing Yaupon holly tea from The Yaupon Brothers.

What healthy life hacks or rituals have you got for us?

I think the simplest and best tip I can give is to not forget how important breathing is - and that in times of uncertainty or stress it can be a core bodily function that’s easy to get wrong. For example, by keeping our breath too shallow, or too high in the chest. So the trick is to learn to integrate regular abdominal breathing, in and out of the nose, and keep a conscious check on doing it all day until it becomes natural. This abdominal breathing will help self-soothe, drawing more oxygen to the body and brain to help you get through and process events more rationally. So yes, I am suggesting to everyone that to survive this rocky period we’re going through, remember to breathe!

Thanks James. We've loved learning more about the super-leaf and huge respect to you for building a business out of something you love and that serves people and planet!