It shouldn’t be hard to convince people to take a sip of yerba mate. It’s completely normal. It makes you feel energized and relaxed at the same time. You can drink it all day long without feeling stomach acid burning through your esophagus. It’s the preferred caffeine source for Lionel Messi, Zoe Saldana, and the Pope. I’m drinking yerba mate with my Argentinian mother-in-law as I write this, and I’ll probably drink it with her or my husband when she reads it. However, my track record of tempting friends to taste it is pretty poor.
The average Argentine or Uruguayan drinks more than 26 gallons of green infusion each year, but as far as I can tell, the average American has never tried South America’s most consumed beverage—at least not in its traditional form. After Over 100 Years, So Much Added Sugar, and Growing Consumer Desire for “Clean Caffeine,” Something Companies Are Doing Connection Yerba Mate is finally on shelves near you. But in this land of individualism and germophobia, the real thing simply never catches on.
The plant has been seen as a lucrative commodity since the first arrival of Europeans in the Americas. Long before North Americans rejected mate, European colonists were falling head over heels for the stuff. Within a few decades of their arrival in what is now Paraguay in the early 16th century, the Spanish were already drinking the local infusion they got from the original Guaraní. The Guarani people used yerba mate – which they called yerba ka– As a stimulant and for its medicinal effects since time immemorial. They collected leaves from a certain type of holly, dried them, and then chewed ka Or put it in an orange pumpkin to soak in water and pass among friends.
The Spanish liked the energy that yerba mate gave them and started selling the leaves. But according to Christine Folch, author of the forthcoming book Yerba mate: a stimulating cultural historyIt was Jesuit missionaries in Paraguay who turned yerba mate into a true cash crop, by developing techniques for its large-scale cultivation, methods that relied on the forced labor of the indigenous population. Yerba mate use has exploded. By the 1700s, it was being consumed all over South America: from what is now Paraguay through Peru, Bolivia, southern Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, and Chile.
In the United States, the first major push to promote the cultivation of yerba mate did not occur until 1899, when representatives from Brazil and Paraguay boasted of its benefits at the International Trade Conference in Philadelphia. Soon after, the first US-based company, the Yerba Mate Tea Company, was founded. The company’s marketing slogan was clear and catchy: “Drink Yerba Mate tea and be happy.” The Yerba Maté Tea Company’s 1900 brochure declared, “Here, then, we have a perfect drink. It promotes digestion, gives instant strength to body and brain and acts soothingly on the nervous system.” Plus, she added, “Ladies will be especially interested to know that it has no ill effects on the skin.”
The promotion sparked interest: Curious individuals wrote to their local newspaper asking where to buy yerba mate, and growers searched for information on how to grow it. Newspaper articles from that time predicted a future in which mate might replace tea and coffee. Entrepreneurs founded new companies, hawking yerba mate; Some saw Prohibition as the perfect opportunity for boozy soft drinks. It was hot and cold. In the 1930s, the United States Army considered distributing daily rations of the beverage to soldiers.
However, by the end of the 1930s, demand remained low. Marketers were at a loss, writing: “When can we expect an increase in consumption? The United States and France have proven impervious to all temptations.” It seems Americans have never tasted yerba mate; One 1921 revision in New York Herald Read, “The flavor and taste were strange and flavorless in nature. If our South American friends can enjoy this brew, they are very welcome to all that grows.”
It is true that mate is bitter and tastes like fresh grass. But coffee tastes like burnt rubber the first time you try it, and Americans just can’t get enough. There is something deeper going on here. It makes sense, says Ximena Díaz Alarcón, an Argentine marketing and consumer trends researcher, that Americans should never put down their coffee or tea cups to pick up a merba-filled pumpkin. “There is no cultural compatibility,” she told me from her home in Buenos Aires.
Traditionally, yerba mate is consumed from the common gourd through a common pipette called a Bombilla. Alarcon said, “Here in Argentina, comradeship is a cultural habit, it’s a tradition, and it’s about sharing with others.” But sitting for an hour or two and sharing a drink, especially from the same straw, isn’t something Americans are used to.
However, even when entrepreneurs in the past stripped away the community aspect of yerba mate and sold it to north america in individual tea bags, coffee and tea definitively won out. This makes sense: A big part of a partner’s attraction is its rituals and community, not just the compounds it contains. The bag buddy simply doesn’t have much going for it. In order to convince Americans who have no connection to yerba mate traditions to incorporate it into their lives, the drink must be appropriate and superior to coffee or tea—in the process, losing the things that make it so beloved in the American South.
Over the past decade, Americans’ growing thirst for healthy, plant-based caffeinated beverages has helped usher in mate into the food industry—at least superficially. Today, you can find it at the corner store and at major grocery chains like Whole Foods and Walmart. But the yerba mate that fits into American culture has no leaves, no straws, and no gourds. Instead, it is a blended ingredient in canned and bottled energy drinks. This style of yerba mate is convenient and quick, and doesn’t require a spit swap.
Although carbonated and canned yerba mate have been around since the 1920s, the demand for it is new. Today, “people want more natural products and simpler ingredient lists,” says Martin Caballero, a BevNET editor who grew up drinking yerba mate when visiting family in Argentina. “So using yerba mate as an energy source for caffeine was something we saw a lot of.” Like, so much more: In 2021, Coca-Cola is launching Honest Yerba Mate; Perrier now has an “Energize” line featuring yerba mate, and upstart Guru sells an organic energy drink “inspired by the powerful botanicals of Amazonia.” (For the record, yerba mate does not grow in the Amazon.)
At least one company has felt firsthand the difference between marketing real and diluted yerba mate. Founded in 1996, Guayakí has built its entire business around working with indigenous communities in Paraguay to grow the plant sustainably. Initially, the company sold tea bags and yerba mate wood, but in the mid-2000s, it shifted its focus to selling yerba mate energy drinks. The addition of bubbles and sugar paid off, as did an ambitious marketing campaign targeting college students: Over the past decade, Guayakí has likely served more Americans to yerba mate than all of its previous marketing efforts combined. And while I admire their efforts and business philosophy, their canned “classic gold” tastes a lot like watered down diet cola. But maybe this is the strategy.
These days, it’s easy to find young influencers promoting the canned version of yerba mate—or, as they often call it, “yerba mate.” Meanwhile, I’ve mostly given up on my role as ambassador of old school yerba mate. My friends and colleagues are not interested in sharing a green and bitter drink. But my kid couldn’t be more excited about it. Every morning, we offer her a pumpkin and silver straw (after soaking in warm water so she doesn’t get the caffeine), and she smiles before putting it down. La Bombilla between her little lips. I like to think she loves him for the same reason I love him: not for taste, but for familiarity and ritual.