Yerba Maté

Every few years I’ll give Yerba Maté another shot, usually after inheriting a box from a friend’s move. And after giving it ye olde college try and reaffirming it tastes like lawn trimmings, I put it at the back of the tea cupboard with the other boxes. Well, it turns out I’ve been drinking the cheap stuff. Or old stuff. Or both. After drinking gallons of the organic Fair Trade biodynamic maté from Guayaki, I’m on board. It tastes yummy and it gives me the right kind of buzz. 

“It has the strength of coffee, the health of green tea and the euphoria of chocolate” says one of Guyaki Yerba Mate’s founders, Alex Pryor.

Maté is a power-packed beverage. It has over 20 vitamins and minerals, 15 amino acids and is high in antioxidants. It’s more nutritious than green tea. In 1964 the Pasteur Institute and the Paris Scientific Society studied maté and concluded “it is difficult to find a plant in any area of the world equal to maté in nutritional value…[it contains] practically all of the vitamins necessary to life.”

Maté does contain caffeine, at a level that hovers between that of green tea and coffee. And it is caffeine (those “mateine” folks are deluding themselves). But it also has theobromine (the same mood-elevating compound found in chocolate), xanthines and theophylline, so you get a steady, less-dramatic energy bump without the crash. It’s also less acidic than coffee, so it’s easier on your stomach. Tim Ferriss, author of the 4-Hour Work Week, swears by it as a beverage to drink when you want to be alert and productive.

Maté comes from a leafy evergreen species of holly, Ilex paraguariensis, native to eastern  Paraguay’s portion of the Paranaense forest (a tropical rainforest that straddles eastern Paraguay, southern Brazil and northern Argentina). In the wild, maté comes from a medium-sized tree that can grow as high as 20-25 metres. It thrives in rain forests between the 10th and 30th parallels and, like premium coffee, is shade grown.

The literal translation of yerba mate, or “erva mate” in Portuguese, is “gourd herb” – literally, the herb one drinks from a gourd. It has spread from its traditional territory to all over South America, Europe, North America, Europe and the Middle East.

It was first cultivated and consumed by the Guaraní and the Tupí in southern Brazil, Paraguay and northern Argentina. Maté was exposed to the west through the first Spanish settlers in the 15th century and by the end of the 17th century Jesuits had domesticated it and set up the first maté plantations. Maté soon spread to Chile, Bolivia and Peru.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), Brazil is the biggest producer of maté in the world, producing 53% of the world’s supply, followed by Argentina (37%) and Paraguay (10%) as of 2012. Uruguay is the largest consumer while Syria is the largest importer, brought there by ex-pats returning to the Middle East from South America.

Commercial maté is typically grown on plantations that keep the trees pruned down to 4 to 8-metre bushes. It’s a good crop for difficult terrain, since it can grow on steep slopes and can withstand frost as low as -6C. Plantations yield between 2 and 7 tonnes per hectare and the same trees can be harvested for up to 20 years.

Since it traditionally grows in the shade, when it hits direct sunlight on the plantations it grows much faster. But like any crop, that kind of mono-cultivation depletes the soil, leads to soil erosion and necessitates commercial fertilizers.

The maté beverage is made by steeping the leaves in water just off the boil, like black tea. It is traditionally made in a gourd (called a guampa, porongo or maté in Spanish, cabaça or cuia in Portuguese) and drunk through a metal straw (bombilla in Spanish, bomba in Portuguese) and shared among friends (clockwise if you follow the South American ritual). When the gourd is empty, refill with hot water and resteep. How often you refill with fresh maté leaves is up to the individual. Here are 2 clips on how make maté in a gourd:

 

 

I like to make it loose in a teapot or French Press. 1 & 1/2 teaspoons of leaves will give you roughly two 8 ounce-mugs of maté. I prefer to use the same leaves for 2 steepings:  3 minutes the first time, 4 or 5 the next.

Maté is served in countless different ways in South America: hot or cold, sweetened or not, loose or in teabags, straight or with fruit juice or milk or blended with herbs (such as peppermint or citrus rind). Mixing it with fruit juice can be a great idea, since some of the cheaper maté can be quite bitter.

Guayaki sells bottled versions of its maté, but they aren’t the first company to do this. Club-Mate is a carbonated maté extract made by the Loscher Brewery in Germany, who bought the production license in 1994 from the Latteier company who had been making it under the name “Sekt-Bronte” since 1924. They renamed it Club-Mate and is available in 4 flavours. It has twice the caffeine and half the sugar of Coke (it helps you stay awake without making you fat).

It wouldn’t be as popular without the German IT crowd, especially hackers. It started at a hackers’ convention in Berlin called the Chaos Communication Congress. Club-Mate infiltrated the ranks, then spread to the club scene and now is found in bars, restaurants and supermarkets. Sounds a little like Red Bull’s story. In Vancouver, you can find Club-Mate at Bestie and Greenhorn.

If you’re looking for that long, sustained pick-me-up on top of a laundry list of health benefits, give Yerba Maté a shot. Large sections of South America can’t be wrong. Just make sure you get the good stuff and brew it loose.

Part One of Two

in the next entry John will look at Guayaki specifically, and how it not only produces the tastiest maté, it’s also changing the world.

photo courtesy of Juan Pablo Olmo

Written By:

John Crawford is on a constant hunt for authenticity. This commercial pilot is also a professional saxophone player, music teacher, entrepreneur, aviation blogger and contributing writer to Dry Goods. Through deep roots on ...

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