caffeine-like fix from Latin America
by Carol Pucci
Seattle Times assistant business editor
AT 11 p.m. Tango dancing until 1:30 a.m. A cafe stop
at 2. In bed by 3.
was just our second night out in Buenos Aires, and we
were following the lead of our hosts, Luisa and Alejandro,
friends we met a few years ago in Seattle. It was clear
we early-to-bed Seattleites had a few things to learn
about Latin life: Meeting for "coffee" might
mean gathering somewhere around 6 p.m. No one eats dinner
before 10 p.m. And when our friends suggested we meet
at their apartment one day around noon, it was not for
breakfast or even lunch, but mate, a tea-drinking ritual
as sacred to South Americans as our daily stops at Starbucks.
yourself hooked on a hot, herbal drink as popular and
portable as a latte. But instead of a paper cup, you
sip from a "mate," a hollow, pear-shaped gourd
packed with a mildly stimulating dried, chopped leaf
from a South American holly tree. The gourd, stuffed
with the green tea called "yerba," travels
with you wherever you go. Along with it, you carry a
silver straw-like utensil with a bulbous filter on the
end and a container of hot water.
invitation to drink mate is a sign of friendship, not
to be refused. Unlike a latte, mate is seldom served
at restaurants or cafes; rather it's sipped and shared
among friends or family during breaks at the office,
on the bus, behind the computer terminal or in the park.
Argentina is believed to be the largest consumer of
yerba mate. It's also popular in Uraguay, Paraguay and
parts of of Brazil. Now mate is catching on in Seattle,
although it may still be a while before we see our neighbors
walking down the street carrying gourds and Thermos
kind of the rage right now," says Paul Stolp, grocery
manager at Madison Market Natural Foods, which stocks
an organic yerba mate called Guayaki, shade-grown in
Paraguayan rain forests. "A lot of people are kicking
coffee and going to this instead.
Mate contains a natural alkaloid called mateine, a mildly
stimulating relative of caffeine that tends not to produce
side effects such as nervousness or sleeplessness. Mate
contains B vitamins, minerals, amino acids and antioxidants,
so is generally recognized for its nutritional benefits
as well. A cup of mate is thought to have about half
the equivalent caffeine level of a cup of coffee although
"the exact level is a cloudy issue," says
Chris Mann, co-founder of California-based Guayaki Sustainable
Rainforest Products, an importer and wholesaler of mate
for growers in Paraguay.
definitely something that's a Seattle kind of drink.
It induces mental clarity and sustains energy levels.
But unlike with coffee, you don't get the crash,"
Guayaki people of Paraguay began drinking mate centuries
ago to boost the immune system and aid digestion. It
was commercialized by 17th-century Jesuit missionaries
and is now a huge industry in South America.
a small percentage of people here know about yerba mate,"
says Joel Dahl, grocery manager for Puget Consumers
Coop, where Guayaki mate has become the chain's best-selling
tea. "But the people who do buy it know about its
modern mate drinker can buy the tea in bags (around
$5.80 for 25) or loose (about $13 a pound), and brew
it like normal tea or in a coffee press. But with your
own gourd and a bombilla (a few stores in Seattle sell
them, including the Ballard Market and Market Spice
in the Pike Place Market, or they can be ordered from
Guayaki's online catalog), you can follow in the footsteps
of thousands of South Americans who sit behind their
desks and cash registers sipping mate according to ancient
Argentinian friends first introduced us to mate while
they were living in Seattle. We had finished dinner
at their Queen Anne apartment when Ale reached for his
small gourd and filled it with yerba sent to him in
a 5-pound bag by his mother in Buenos Aires.
is an acquired taste; at first sip, our lips burned
and the flavor was smoky and bitter. Ale played the
role of "cerbador" or server, taking responsibility
for filling the gourd with the tea, heating but not
boiling the water in a kettle and pouring it into the
vessel. After a few sips, we passed the gourd back to
him for a refill of water. When you've had enough, a
simple "Gracias" or "Thank you"
is the signal for the cerbador to pass you by.
mate is, in a way, like sharing coffee with friends,
but it creates a more intimate atmosphere and it requires
more time," Luisa told us. "You can't share
mate in a few minutes. Unlike coffee, it's not something
to do in a hurry."
Pucci is deputy business editor at The Seattle Times.