Who is really behind Guayaki? [Interview]

A few months ago, I got the chance to interview Steven Karr from Guayaki. Steve is an amazing guy, with an amazing vision for Mate, and I couldn’t help becoming more and more excited about the future of Mate in the States as I spoke with him. Throughout this interview, we discuss Guayaki’s humble beginnings, their road trip in “Danny,” how they became connected with farmers in South America, and how Guayaki is killin’ it in the Mate industry. Leave a comment below, and drink on!

Matéo:

What is your position at Guayaki?

Steve:

Creative Director. I’m in charge of packaging, designs, the website, and social media. We’re having fun with it.

Matéo:

What is your Mate journey? How did you come to drink Mate?

Steve:

Through my brother, actually. Not too far off from your own journey, Matthew. I was traveling in Europe and living there for a year and my brother came over and shared some Mate with me. I was drinking coffee at that time, and as soon as I drank mate, it changed everything. He left me with a pound of mate and a picture of where it came from. After he left, I shared mate with my friends, and then I ran out! Then I basically asked my brother, “Hey, what do I have to do to get more Mate?” He said, “Well, I met this really cool guy from Argentina, who is trying to save the rainforest through fair trade with the indigenous forest people and practicing sustainable organic agriculture. I’m helping him out on the side, and we need some design work done. When you move back to the States, you should move to San Luis Obispo.”

So I moved to San Luis Obispo and started helping out David and Alex. David’s my brother, just like you have a brother named David, right? Hahaha. And Alex Pryor is our partner from Argentina. He lives in South America now, but was living and studying in SLO when he started the project. Currently, he focuses on supply, and David and I focus on marketing concepts. There are 35 other people who handle all other aspects of the business.

Matéo:

So there are about 38 of you all?

Steve:

Around that, I think there are about 40 of us now, including Danielle, who just joined us and serves up mate in our Mate Bar in Sebastopol.

Matéo:

And this all started out from you three?

Steve:

There are actually five of us who founded it, and we call our selves “The Semillas Group” – The Seed Group. There’s another fellow, who has probably shared more mate with strangers than any on the planet, named Don Miguel (Michael Newton), and of course, Chris Mann, our CEO, who’s favorite way to drink mate besides the gourd are the Pure Passion bottles. The five of us have been together since 1997.

Matéo:

So, to get the story straight, Alex Pryor was in Argentina and got the hook up?

Steve:

Alex was doing his senior project at Cal-Poly, and his project was about yerba mate, because he grew up drinking mate, and it was sparse in the States. He grew up in South America, and his parents were in conservation, so he spent a lot of time driving around and seeing the destruction of the rainforest, which was done at the hands of bulldozers, chainsaws, and dump trucks. Every year, with less and less forest, came more and more soy, corn, rice, and wheat fields, and more and more cattle herds. He had a pretty big passion for wanting to combine forest protection and sharing mate in North America. The idea was that it could be a viable business to import mate in an ethical way with three pillars of sustainability— social justice (fair trade), environmental stewardship, and economics. And the idea was simple: grow and harvest organic mate under the existing rainforest canopy, which creates a long-term value for the native trees standing, rather than as cut timber eventually ending up as monocrop fields and ultimately cattle-grazing land. Then employing the locals and local indigenous to harvest and process the yerba mate (fair trade jobs) and selling it in the natural products stores and cafes to fund the project. We call it Market-Driven-Restoration.

Originally, David bumped into Alex at Pete’s South Side Café and they connected, and he invited David out to his trailer on the Swift Ranch out by Los Osos, where they had a barbecue and their first gourd of many together. David had started a technology business right out of college, but found Alex’s yerba mate and story more fascinating and he ended up spending a lot of time with Alex drinking gourds, talking in Spanish about the culture of mate, and how the world really was thirsty for something new like this on so many levels – eventually partnering with Alex on the idea of making it a real business. When I landed back in the States on Jan 1, 1997, David was there to pick me up, and we drove down to SLO stopping all along the way — sharing mate with natural food stores, getting me steeped in the mate info on that five-hour drive south from our parents house.

Alex’s project was marketing, and to get mate into a couple natural food stores and café’s. The local natural food store was called “Foods for the Family”, and the local coffee shop was “Linneas Café.” Linneas served great mate lattes and was selling it at the natural food store as well, and Don Miguel was brewing it up and serving samples to customers frequently. Additionally, we went to the Thursday night farmers’ market and educated people on mate, and would serve really stout French presses of mate to passers by. We were drinking it because of the way it made us feel—energized—and we would go out for a surf and feel super good, or go to study, or party all night. It was basically just like “life juice.”

But what was interesting was that when we would go to the farmers’ markets every Thursday, people would come back, after trying it the week before, and say that they had quit coffee, or that their skin condition had cleared up, or that their migraines went away, or that the sight in their left eye came back, some really bizarre stuff, we thought. People were saying all of these crazy things and we were saying to Alex, “What the heck is this stuff?” We just thought it was some cool tea that made us feel good. But when people who had these common ailments drank it, and their symptoms went away after they had tried every other possible thing in the world, and this worked, these people would come to us and profess about how amazing this stuff was. All we could say at that point was, “I don’t know, it comes from the rainforest, it has cures to diseases we don’t even have yet,” and smile coyly at them.

Matéo:

Wow, that’s amazing. So then at that point were you guys saying, “Hm, there’s something to this, we should expand our scope and spread it even more.”

Steve:

So, Guayaki started in David’s apartment closet at 778 Marsh Street in downtown SLO, and eventually expanded into the living room, then dining room, and finally the kitchen. The UPS guy was lugging 50 pound sacks of yerba up and down the stairwell, and friends would stop by daily to share gourds, and pick up a few pounds “direct from the source”. More and more mate was flowing out and Chris had a pretty smooth operation going, and that’s when Alex, on a trip down to South America, had met the woman of his dreams and declared that he was going to move home and “secure supply,” and run the business and do the marketing. He felt like he had the right crew assembled, and things were growing organically, and it just felt right.

It was summer, and high time to share the yerba beyond SLO town, and David had thought it high time to take the tea party on the road, so I painted his VW bus named Danny with the rainforest, and we just started cruising north – all the way to the tip of Canada – and just hit up natural food stores and festivals along the way. We served mate, lots of it, and we would basically walk into a natural food store and say, “Look, there’s no commitment here. What we’ll do is set up a table, serve this tea, and we’ll sell it. We’ll give you the proceeds and then we’ll set you up so that you can order more.” We would always end up selling a couple of cases, giving the stores some money, and leaving the leftover product with them. We just opened stores one at a time, just like that, all the way up the coast. The summer was long and hot, and we shared loads of mate and terere, chilled mate in a bull horn, with thousands. Eventually, the end of the summer came, and we were in Santa Rosa saying, “Man, it’s getting cold,” but we have to keep this going, it’s fun, and it’s working. So we upgraded and got an RV. Then we started doing tours all around the country for the next several years, sometimes just me and David, and other times Don Miguel jumped in or David or I jumped out. Introducing people one gourd at a time was the daily journey. We didn’t even know where we were going most of the time, we were just on the journey, and it was figuring itself out day by day. People would just point us in different directions of natural food stores and festivals, and fate would lead us home.

Matéo:

When you guys were just cruising around like that, did you ever go up to someone, try to introduce them to mate, and found that they already knew about it?

Steve:

Yeah, it was very, very, very, rare that anyone had heard about mate, except when you ran into a missionary or someone from the Peace Corps who had lived in Paraguay, or you met someone who had traveled to South America and drank mate from the gourd, or a college professor. But, virtually no one was drinking mate currently, here, or if they were, it was 1 in 10,000. It was very rare – 99.9% of the people we had bumped into hadn’t heard of it, but were familiar with green tea, and it was the heyday for all of the anti-cancer products, and people were like “Oh, green tea, I heard that that’s good for you. Is this green tea?” We would say, “No, but it has more active compounds in it than green tea, 196 vs. 144. There aren’t as many studies on it, but people have been drinking it for almost 1,000 years, and there’s a long list of claims that people have historically touted.”

Matéo:

There’s still such an enormous amount of growth for mate in America, it’s just the beginning.

Steve:

Totally, and those who drink mate are passionate about mate, so when someone asks them about it, they love talking about it. We know that people become really passionate about Guayaki because of the environmental and social aspects of our company. Obviously the quality of our mate is superior to the non-organic, sun-grown stuff, so when people drink ours, it’s kind of an enlightening experience.

Matéo:

You mentioned that place, the “Bio-natural reserve,” or something? Is that where you get your mate from? And is it in the north of Argentina?

Steve:

That was our first project, and we now have several sources – some in Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay. Now we have several manufacturers who look to us to help them improve their factories and various processes. To make the best possible product, we all work together to have the factories be clean and to have good manufacturing processes.

Matéo:

You know, Steve, we’re American, so how could you get the “in” with these producers? I feel as though they would say, “Who are these people, and what do they want?”

Steve:

Well that’s the beauty of having Alex in South America. He understands the South American culture so well, and his heart is in the right place, and earns people’s trust. Alex and his team help farmers obtain, and maintain, organic certification, and other certifications like fair-trade and GMO-free. Guayaki pays two to three-times market price, provided that they meet specific social and environmental standards, and we help them reach those standards, so there’s a mutual collaboration. We also help them set up programs to reforest their areas. We have a nursery with over 50,000 native tree starts in it with about 33 different species. We work with elementary school children, farmers, and other people within the community to collect the seeds of native trees, germinate them in greenhouses, and grow native rainforest saplings. These baby trees get planted all around the mate, which creates more shade, and coincidentally, a habitat for birds. While these trees grow up around the mate, the harvesting of mate pays for the trees to be there, so then there is never a need to cut down the trees. That’s really the magical thing that is going on. Everybody wins: people, planet, forest.

Now on to the big picture: our mission is to protect and steward and restore 200,000 acres of Atlantic rainforest and create 1,000 living wage jobs by 2020. Here’s how it works – as an example, if you’ve got 10,000 acres, a farmer might have mate growing in 10% of the forest, and it generates enough income to make it profitable annually, and keep the forest intact year after year. It’s like saying that you use one bedroom of your house as an office, but your business from that one bedroom office is making enough money to pay for your whole mortgage. So growing and harvesting mate, a part of your forest helps protects all of your forest.

Matéo:

So you said that you get your Mate from Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina. Do you just blend all of those different types of Mate together?

Steve:

We have different mates. Some of them, like the San Mateo mate, is a single mate from a single region in Brazil, and is an air-dried mate. Our traditional mate is a blend of a couple of different mates, and it’s produced in the traditional Paraguayan style. It’s a little bit earthier, a little bit smokier, and we blend it together to achieve the most rich and robust flavor that we can get – and it’s great for mate lattes. Those are our two staple items that we sell in stores like Whole Foods, and then on our website we have other items such Ache’s Pride mate, which is a single-source mate, very limited harvest, and is from a really special project in Paraguay. The Aché Guayaki people are basically growing mate and sustaining their entire community of 33 families with it. It’s a very dense, and dark shade-grown mate, and it grows really slowly. It also costs more, because it costs more to produce and there’s less of it, but it’s great. It’s $20 a pound, but it’s seriously amazing. It’s not your everyday mate – it’s your super special, once-in-a-while mate, like a prized bottle of wine. It’s also unlike any mate that anyone else has ever had – it’s really dense, so it has an amazing deep, rich, mushroom-like flavor. It’s not a model for high-production mate; it’s more of a model for a tribe to live in the jungle, yet participate in international commerce. There’s not even enough of it to sell in stores, just seasonally through our website. We also have another kind called Gaucho Fuerte, which is basically the powder that comes from when we make the tea bags, and we have a machine that compresses it into the little granules – so it works perfectly in an espresso maker or drip coffee maker. We also offer a Barbacua mate, which is extra smoky for those who like their mate that way.

Matéo:

So Guayaki is obviously killin’ it right now. You have an extreme variety of flavor profiles for everyone, and people love your mate. So I have to ask this next question: why did you guys decide to have other products? You have the 16 oz. bottles, the 16 oz. cans, the 2 oz. energy shots . . . why did you guys branch out?

Steve:

Yeah, we originally started with just tea bags and loose mate, and we found out that that flavor profile is good, but people like things to be a little fruitier and tastier. And a lot of people like convenience, and they just want it to taste right without thinking too much about it. A lot of people wanted the benefits of mate, but they also wanted it made for them, and to be mixed with fruit juices and things like that. We made the 16 oz. glass bottles for that, we made the shots for people who didn’t want as much liquid, and same thing with the cans, just another beverage format. The glass bottles are sometimes not allowed at the beach or poolside so cans work well for that, etc. Our newest ones are the sparkling mate, and some people like bubbly, effervescent, and refreshing liquid, so that’s why we came out with that, and they’re insanely good. Mate is very versatile, it’s not like coffee, you know.

Matéo:

I’m sure that this may vary among your different types of mate, like Barbacua vs. San Mateo, but what is your drying and smoking process?

Steve:

The Traditional mate is first dried with a sopecadora, where it’s flash heated for a brief second to halt oxidation, and tumbles down a heated tube. Then it’s additionally smoke dried where it goes into a Barbacua (the name of the drying machine), then goes into the smoking room for 18-24 hours to soak up some rich flavor. For the air-dried San Mateo, it’s a different process with no smoke. After the flash heating, it goes on a conveyor belt through chambers of hot air for about a minute, and it’s dry when it comes out on the other side. With both styles, they are then milled into a rough cut called Canchada, then stored to age and mellow for up to a year, then milled to size just prior to export.

Matéo:

So the drying and smoking processes are separate?

Steve:

There are actually a lot of different processes, and all manufacturers build their systems slightly different. But yes, you can dry mate without smoke drying it, it just depends on the flavor desired for product you are making.

Matéo:

You said that a lot of your mate is grown under the canopy of the rainforest. Does that mean that most of it is shade-grown?

Steve:

That’s right. It’s all shade-grown, rainforest grown.

Matéo:

Awesome, do you guys have an aging process?

Steve:

Yeah, for some of them we do. Some age longer than others. Typically they age for about a year, although, some may age longer. And some of them are aged in a cedar chambers.

Matéo:

Why is that?

Steve:

Well, cedar is naturally an insect repellant, and it also has a deep, sweet flavor. It’s the same reason that they age wine in oak barrels, and different types of wood, because the wood imparts a variety of flavors. We also keep some of the tender stems in the mate because they impart a sweet flavor to the mate, and also have more theobromine than the leafy part, and theobromine is the stuff that’s in chocolate that relaxes smooth muscle tissue, and makes you feel like you are in love. Did I mention, the mate leaf has hearts running down the center of it? Check it out.

Matéo:

Wow, have you guys experimented with other types of wood?

Steve:

A little bit, but really, the cedar works best. It keeps the mate nice and fresh. There is another one we’ve used called Incienso, I believe, which is a local wood with similar characteristics.

Matéo:

Going back to the history a little bit. Do you agree that you guys are the #1 mate company in the States?

Steve:

We have about 60% of the market share, so I’d say yes.

Matéo:

That’s awesome. I’ve heard other companies say that they don’t want to be in a “competition” with Guayaki, but instead, a “co-opetition.” I think that’s really great.

Steve:

Yeah, a few years ago we started something called the Yerba Mate Association of America (YMAA). We worked with EcoTeas, and a few other players who aren’t even around anymore. We wanted to work cooperatively with other manufacturers to help everyone become better, and produce better mate. That’s the spirit of mate, sharing and helping your friends out. Eventually, we kept running into roadblocks of what we could and couldn’t get done, so we pitched it to the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA), which is a bigger association, and have been getting studies published and research done.

Matéo:

It must have taken you guys a lot to get to where you are today, how did you guys set up your initial funds? Did you have seed grants, or some other means to get yourselves on the road?

Steve:

A bunch of credit cards, haha! Seventeen of them at one point. This was back in the day when everyone was sending credits cards to you left and right. We took them all. We took on debt, and we also got a Small Business Association (SBA) loan from our local bank, called First Bank in SLO. David and Alex basically walked into the bank and presented a business plan – while drinking a gourd – and asked for $50,000. After half an hour, the banker said that the business plan was a little shaky, but that David and Alex had something special, and that the bank would take a risk since they believed in them and in the idea of local business. So we got the loan, went back to them and showed them some promising numbers, and received another $100,000, then another loan for $250,000, and then the rest of it was from friends and family and conservationists who believed in our model. Our model isn’t like the typical “build it out, blow it up, and then sell it model.” It’s much more of a long-term holistic strategy, like nature itself.

Matéo:

What’s your vision for Guayaki and Mate overall?

Steve:

2011 was our first profitable year of any significance, and our goal, as it has always been, is to be a for-profit conservation and restoration company. And to be a leader in it, and an example which shows that you can have a profitable business from doing all of the things right from the beginning. It doesn’t make sense to give back a portion of your profits – you have to build the “giving back” right into the day to day of it. The original vision, which is still alive and strong, is to work with more and more farmers and tracts of land so that eventually, there will be more and more migratory pathways for birds and animals. So instead of different little islands of forests amongst the deserts of monocrops, we’ll have more and more mate forests growing, with more and more safe havens for animals.

Matéo:

For a final question, what’s your take on Mate in the States? Is it growing?

Steve:

We’re seeing things really take off lately. We know that mate is awesome and that humans love it. We’re also seeing that, with the new formats we’re creating, there are a lot of forms that people can get into. Ultimately, we want everyone drinking loose mate. That’s what it’s really all about, putting some mate in your gourd, or brewing it in some fashion, and sharing it with others. All you need is a little bit of water, that’s the real deal. There’s going to be room for all of the different avenues of various mate products, and we’ll keep accommodating different tastes and desires.

 

To check out Guayaki’s products, head here! Drink on!

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