Mmmm Mate! A Closer Look at South America’s Green Infusion
In my two years experience at Maya Tea, I have become very familiar with the Frequently Asked Questions of the tea industry. Most, such sole mates socks as brewing techniques, health benefits, and origins, require a semi-automated response, but the most common of all questions is answered differently by each individual. “What is your favorite?”
I preface my response with a warning. My tastes often differ from those of the general public- I prefer strong, bold, natural flavors, and tend to stay away from fruity or sweet notes. My tea tastes closely resemble my beer tastes, and I enjoy both ends of the spectrum of natural flavors – the sharp and bitter and the thick and toasty. In beer, this means Stone IPA and Guinness Draught, and in tea this means Yerba Mate and Puer.
Today I want to talk about Yerba Mate. Its moment of glory is well deserved.
Let me again emphasize this word of caution – this infusion is not for the faint of heart! Those of you who habitually drink vanilla and apricot teas may find yourselves shocked at first sip, its flavor is unique – strong and grassy, equally sweet and bitter – and the effect of this tisane is even more profound.
I’ll begin at the beginning, in my tale it is crucial. My first sip of mate was my first real introduction to tea, and set me on the tea-trodden trail where I find myself today. That first sip was taken in a small plant-filled shop with a discreet sign inscribed “Buzz’s Yerba Mate Bar”. It was taken through a small metal straw, called a bombilla, which filtered the loose leaves within the cup from the liquid I consumed. It carried a hint of lavender, as the shop owner enjoyed adding a touch of other flavors to compliment his drinks. That first sip knocked my socks off.
Traditionally, mate is drunk from a hollowed gourd. Loose mate leaves sit within the gourd and the drinker repeatedly pours hot water over the leaves, drinking through the bombilla, until the leaves lose their flavor or the drinker runs out of hot water, whichever happens first. This is how I was served mate in Buzz’s Mate Bar, and it is a good thing because had I not continued to drink from the gourd over the following hour I may have never found my true love for it. That first sip is intense. My lips puckered into that infamous sour expression, but I carried on and soon discovered that the true joy in mate is not in the taste (though that dramatic flavor grows on you, I promise) but in the elevating effect that it has on your spirits. Its high caffeine content increases your energy, and the array of other xanthenes provide you with an overwhelming sense of well-being. Mate makes you… happy. Plain and simple. And even more pleasurable is the time that it takes for you to consume it. Most of us don’t take time out for “tea time” anymore; our mugs sit by our side as we continue at other tasks- tea is secondary to life. Mate forced me to settle in for the long haul, to enjoy my companions and surroundings and, well, myself.
That was the start of it all. I frequented the Mate Bar until its close (let’s face it- a shop that sells solely mate has a meek chance at survival) and afterwards began searching for other enticing beverages, a search which proved very fruitful and, three years later, landed me on the doorstep of Maya Tea looking for a job. During my interview the owner, Manish, asked me why I wanted to work in the tea industry, and as I gushed about my love for the drink I confessed to him which of all was my absolute favorite. He responded with a scowl. “That grassy stuff?!?” he exclaimed, and shook his head. In fact, not a soul at the tea company shared in my enjoyment of the drink. I was dubbed the Mate Girl, and every morning I brewed myself a strong cup to kick-start my day while my coworkers giggled in the background, slowly sipping their darjeelings and senchas.