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Guayakí Yerba Mate - A Powerful Rainforest Experience

Buzz in the Press
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Buzz in the Press

Buzz in the Press

porland press
porland press
Wednesday, April 19, 2006
SOUP TO NUTS: Meredith Goad


This tea is hot
Copyright © 2006 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.

In an unscientific taste test, Staff Writer Meredith Goad "liked the plain, organic tea bags from Traditional Medicinals best. Celestial Seasonings' Morning Thunder, a blend of black tea and yerba mate    , simply confused me. Tazo's Lemon mate is a blend of yerba mate     infused with lemon, ginger and cardamom that can, the package says, "make you hear jungle birds talking all night long, and understand what they're saying."


Preparing the tea in a mate gourd can be a tricky business, with drinkers running the risk of sucking up a mouthful of stems or leaves.

Yerba mate is a popular beverage that is brewed from the dried leaves of a small tree in the holly family. It is being sold in local coffee shops, and an increasing number of home brewers are drinking it the traditional way - from a gourd.

THE LANGUAGE OF mate
According to Guayaki, a company that sells organic, fair-trade yerba mate  and all of its accoutrements, there is a subtle language to serving mate. It's kind of like those little heart candies you pass around at Valentine's Day:


Friendship: Sweet mate
You are in my thoughts: mate with cinammon
I like you: mate with burnt sugar
Come for me: mate  with orange peel
I sympathize with your sadness: mate with molasses
I'm so in love with you: Very hot mate
Marriage: mate with honey
True love: Foaming mate   

People usually stop by Maine Roasters Coffee for a cup of joe made from their hand-roasted beans.

But here I was in their new South Portland shop, three cups lined up before me, preparing to sample the hottest new drink this side of the equator.

I'd seen all the hype about yerba mate (pronounced mah-tay), a tea-like beverage that is poised to become the next chai in the marketplace. It is a drink brewed from the dried leaves of a small tree in the holly family that grows in the rain forests of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay.

Yerba mate is billed as a healthful alternative to coffee, although not all of its benefits have been proven by researchers. It has some caffeine in it, so it gives a little pick-me-up without all the jitters. It has vitamins and minerals, too. And, like coffee, it contains lots of antioxidants that help boost the immune system, ward off disease, and retard the aging process.

In South America, yerba mate is known as the "Drink of the Gods," just the kind of tidbit that makes overstressed Americans looking for a quick fix feel all tingly inside. In November, the Center for Culinary Development in San Francisco predicted that yerba mate is going to be the Next Big Thing in American coffee shops and cafés.

Yerba mate's first fans were the South American Guarani Indians, who started brewing it centuries ago. Today folks in South American countries carry on the tradition of drinking the tea out of handmade gourds with metal straws called bombillas.

In places like Argentina, this is still a national pastime. People walk down the street sipping out of their own personal yerba mate gourds, kind of like Americans carrying around their designer water bottles.

Turns out this traditional method of drinking it also is catching on in the United States. Small cults of yerba mate gourd drinkers are popping up all over the place.

"It's almost like a lifestyle choice, I think," said Campbell Clegg, one of the owners of Maine Roasters Coffee, where yerba mate has been on the menu for just two or three weeks. "It's how Indiana Jones would drink it if he were here."

YERBA mate 101

I decided to see what all the fuss is about. I started with the trip to Maine Roasters Coffee, where Clegg introduced me to three different versions of the drink.

First in line was yerba mate , straight up.

Can you say "Moo?"

Yes, indeed, it tasted a lot like sweet hay. The grassy flavor is supposed to be an acquired taste.

Actually, all joking aside, I acquired it fairly quickly. But I also like green tea, Japanese twig tea - anything with earthy, almost bitter overtones.

Beyond the flavor, I like the fact that yerba mate leaves must be brewed for at least 20 minutes to get the full health benefits. The longer you brew it, the better it is for you, without developing too strong a taste. That means I can get some started, then wander off and forget about it for a while without ruining the whole batch.

To make yerba mate more accessible to everyone, and thus more marketable, some retailers are adding milk and sugar, as well as flavorings and spices such as vanilla and cardamom.

That brings me to the next two samples I tried: A yerba mate latte and mate     chai latte. Try saying that three times real fast.

The yerba mate  latte ($2.85, compared with $1.45 for the plain tea) was made from a concentrate that Clegg sells in his stores. It was warm and milky, with a subtle sweetness. Clegg said this version has become his favorite, and I can see why. ("Oooh, that is good," I believe were my exact words.)

I was pretty sure I wouldn't like the mate chai latte, even before I tried it. Corporate America ruined "regular" chai when it marketed it to the masses, turning it into a sickly sweet concoction fit only for tastebuds trained on junk food. I love real chai so much that I drank it out of dirty glasses at trailside stands in the Himalayas, and today I make my own homemade chai using a spice blend I buy from an Indian woman. So commercial versions are kind of an abomination to me.

Well, it turns out the mate  chai latte ($2.85) is actually pretty good. It's still too sweet for me, but at least it's not like drinking a pound of sugar.

I decided to continue my yerba experiment over the long weekend. I bought a traditional mate gourd and bombilla from Clegg, and also dropped by Wild Oats to pick up three kinds of yerba mate tea bags to see what they were like.

I liked the plain, organic tea bags from Traditional Medicinals best. Celestial Seasonings' Morning Thunder, a blend of black tea and yerba mate , simply confused me.

Tazo's Lemon mate is a blend of yerba mate infused with lemon, ginger and cardamom that can, the package says, "make you hear jungle birds talking all night long, and understand what they're saying." It tasted great, but wasn't all that different from other lemon-ginger teas.

guayaki gift box

GOING FOR THE GOURD

My mate gourd was from a company called Guayaki, which sells sustainably-grown yerba mate from a 20,000-acre rain forest preserve in Paraguay.

I was a little nervous about the gourd because the box looks like it was created by someone hopped up on caffeine. There's tiny print everywhere, even on the bottom, and the instructions are so detailed and complicated it seems like they should be labeled "How to Fly the Space Shuttle."

Clegg has tried the gourd experience already, and warned me that it is "definitely tricky."

"What I've been doing so far is sucking up a lot of stems through it," he said.

The instructions say to pack the gourd just over half full with mate leaves. Then, covering the opening with your hand, you're supposed to turn the gourd upside down and shake it with several flicks of the wrist. This motion supposedly brings the more powdery leaves to the top.

Then you turn the gourd on its side and shake it back and forth to bring the stems to the surface.

Then you do the hokey-pokey and you turn yourself around . . . just kidding.

Next comes the insertion of the bombilla - the metal, straw-like filter that allows you to drink the tea without getting a mouthful of leaves. You gently roll the gourd over until the mate  levels off inside and some of the larger stems are covering the bottom of the filter.

Whew.

"With the straw having those slits on the side of it, you're trying to get as many of the big pieces (of mate) next to those slits," Clegg said. "I wasn't very good at it. I tried it three times, then my 6-year-old was like, 'What's this Dad?' and she just pulled it out."

Come Saturday morning, I padded downstairs and did a surprisingly good job, I think, of packing the gourd. The next step was to add cool water and let it sit for a few minutes.

"The cool water protects the nutrients and flavor of the mate," the package explained.

The mate was supposed to absorb the water and swell. I didn't notice much swelling, so after a few minutes I went ahead and added the hot water. After 20 minutes, the leaves had absorbed almost all the water, and I could have added more. I decided instead to take my first sip. It was at least two to three times stronger than the beverage I had tried at Maine Coffee Roasters.

All the yerba mate was gone in about two sips - there couldn't have been more than a quarter-cup of liquid left in the gourd - so I added more hot water. By the time I got to the third round, the leaves had absorbed all the liquid they could and there was more tea for me.

I kept filling the gourd all day, going through a total of seven or eight rounds. (The instructions say you can refill it 15 to 20 times.) I must have done something right because I got almost 100 percent liquid through the straw. I think the trick is to not move the bombilla around.

The verdict? Drinking out of the gourd was fun, but a lot of work.

Even after eight gourds, there were no coffee-like jitters.

But I'm a little disappointed I haven't heard any jungle birds yet.