At a time of year when boosting our nutrient and energy levels is a full-time focus, Rhiannon Thomas looks at the emergence of a new super brew…
With the energising powers of coffee, mood-enhancing effects of chocolate, and nutritious Brownie points of green tea, it’s no wonder that yerba mate (pronounced yer-bah mah-tay, just FYI) has been such a popular drink, and best kept secret, in South America for centuries.
“The key thing that sets it apart from other hot drinks is its unique combination of caffeine, theobromine, vitamins and minerals,” Rosie Marteau, co-founder of Bath-based yerba mate producer Yuyo, informs us. “This means it offers the health benefits of green tea combined with roughly the same level of lift as coffee, coupled with slower-acting theobromine (the feel-good compound you find in cacao) which counteracts any crash and ensures its effects are longer lasting.”
“Its steady energy boost is great for morning or mid-afternoon focus at work, especially when combined with mate’s hydrating qualities – unlike coffee, mate won’t leave you feeling thirsty or dry out your skin”.
The yerba mate tree (ilex paraguariensis if you want to get technical) is native to areas in South Brazil, Paraguay and North Argentina, and is actually a member of the holly family. A pretty special member, mind you, that has more than its fair share of benefits (ideal for this January slump we are all currently finding ourselves in, no?).
In fact, mate has been reported to make the drinker feel instantly uplifted, help with post-training muscle recovery, and contain multiple different vitamins and minerals, Rosie says.
“Back in 1964 a group of investigators from the Pasteur Institute and the Paris Scientific Society concluded that yerba mate contains ‘practically all of the vitamins necessary to sustain life.’ It has since been found to contain vitamins A, C, E, B1, B2, B3, B5, B-complex, calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, zinc, manganese and selenium.”
Where as millions of people around the world wake up with a steaming cup of coffee or tea each morning, in some parts of South America, yerba mate replaces both of these as the most popular hot drink and is, in fact, consumed six to one over coffee.
“The leaves of the Yerba Mate tree have been picked, dried and brewed as an energising drink for centuries by the Guaraní people, but it began to spread beyond its indigenous origins following Spanish colonisation and the movement of Jesuit missionaries.
“Today you’ll find it consumed across Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil by bus drivers, busy mums, old people sitting together on street corners, world cup winning footballers and business people alike – it’s completely universal. It has now spread to California and Germany too, where you’ll find it consumed as both a hot drink and a cold fizzy energy drink by students, hipsters and health conscious people who help to shape food trends.”
Rosie founded drinks company Yuyo with her partner Charles Grummitt after returning from a South American adventure. They flew to Panama, and travelled their way down from country to country, eventually making their way to Argentina. Back on British soil and buzzing with memories from those beautiful countries, they decided they wanted to share yerba mate with us back here in the UK.
Not only is it the most popular hot drink in these South American countries, it also plays an important social role; the drink is often consumed among friends, and is passed from one person to another. It’s brewed in a gourd (a traditional cup-like vessel), by pouring hot water over the leaves, and is then drunk using a bombilla (a sort of straw with a filter at the end to catch the leaves).
Although now clearly au fait with this process, is wasn’t too long ago that Rosie and Charles, like many people in the UK, had never taste yerba mate. When they packed their bags in preparation for their South America adventure, they had no idea they would come home having discovered something that would change their lives and careers.
“We were sitting in a hostel in Encarnación, Paraguay as the new Pope Francis – himself a mate drinker – was being announced” Rosie remembers, when talking about her first experience of mate. “We shared a gourd of tereré (ice brewed yerba mate) with our host, Javier, and talked Latin American national and religious politics.
“Our Paraguayan friends were worried about us trying the first few sips, as these can be bitter and they didn’t want it to put us off. We found it grassy, smoky and intriguing – we could see it had real potential. We went on to drink it on the streets and seawalls of Montevideo, forging friendships and chatting as the sun set.”
Now, having firmly established their drinks biz Yuyo, Rosie and Charles are on a mission: a #yerbamatemission. They’re spreading the news about this wonder drink and hope to see it popping up on the menu of independent and local coffee shops in Bristol, Bath and the rest of the country. And they’re already well on their way…
“It definitely feels like the tide is turning,” says a hopeful Rosie. “When we first started doing tastings locally a couple of years ago you could count the people who had heard of mate on one hand – now we are seeing interest from well-known UK healthy food bloggers like Madeleine Shaw and we’ve noticed increased awareness in places like east London, where lots have people have come back from Berlin or South America having tried mate.
“We’re not sure why it’s not caught on in the UK before now. It seems so perfect for the lives we lead here, with a great combination of health and energy benefits, as well as its links with an interesting cultural heritage. In all honesty, perhaps it’s just that no one has tried to adapt it to the British audience – we’re the first company to modernise it, put it into teabags and create infusions rather than just selling loose yerba, which we thought might be a bit perplexing for people’s first encounter.”
Indeed, Yuyo not only deal with pure yerba loose leaves, but they also stock a range of blends: Yerba Mint is filled with the fresh flavours of peppermint, lemon verbena and garden mint essential oils; Yerba Spice is reminiscent of chai in flavour; and Yerba Zing is a tropical blend of lemon and orange peel, peppermint, rosehips and grapefruit.
“We want to raise awareness of a really culturally significant and powerful plant product that we feel passionately about, as well as the continent it comes from and the people who grow it. Mate has the potential to bring energy and pleasure to so many people and we won’t keep quiet about it until it’s a household name.”
To find out more about yerba mate and Yuyo, visit the website