I recently got the chance to interview Dee Fretwell, who is the Vice President of Operations at EcoTeas, located in Ashland, Oregon (which Dee pronounces “organ”). The interview randomly came about from the following sequence of events: Circle of Drink received some Mate from EcoTeas. Upon examining the package of the Mate, I saw that their Mate was labeled as “unsmoked.” Dave Mate and I had a New York-Buenos Aires phone conversation during which we discussed various fire/non-fire drying techniques, and what exactly “smoked” or “unsmoked” Mate means. We decided that one of us should speak with EcoTeas, and I called up Dee. One question about their Mate turned into an amazing impromptu interview, which follows:
What’s the story behind EcoTeas, where did it all start?
EcoTeas was born 12 years ago. The founder, Stefan Schachter went to Paraguay and fell in love with Mate, the preparation ceremony, and the community that naturally occurs there. He decided that it would become his mission to spread it to the States, and he began the company with his childhood friends. He visited dozens of farms around South America, and then found the Kraus family. Stefan created a proposal and integrated Kraus into the EcoTeas brand. He and his friends started the company by packaging Mate in his house.
What’s the exact difference between Kraus and Ecoteas?
Kraus is the name of the family that owns the farm that grows our Mate. They’re our partner.
We’re aware that the Kraus brand has four different styles in Argentina, what is the style of the Kraus brand that you distribute?
The only type of Kraus that we distribute is the whole plant cut, which contains stems and powder.
Interesting, why no stems (palos) or powder (polvo) in your Mate?
Powder is wonderful, but it isn’t best for tea, especially for the America palate. Stems are good too, but they’re a little too meaty. The addition of stems results in a more bitter Mate, which those who aren’t hardcore Mate drinkers may not like.
Where is your Mate grown?
It’s grown in Misiones, Argentina. Ecoteas and Kraus have the same source.
Is your yerba mixed with yerba from other locations, or is it pure?
It’s not mixed, at all. But we do have one blend “Holy Mate,” which is entirely different and contains tulsi and peppermint. Partly why we cut the “Holy Mate” blend the way we do, is to create an even smoother Mate for others. It serves as a gentle beginning that may cause others to venture out and try more bitter types. Also, if you’re going to drink Mate all day, especially in America, a gentle Mate helps. However, our 1lb Mate is strictly pure leaf Mate.
What’s your drying/ smoking process?
We run our Mate on a conveyor belt that goes through a hot air flash system, which takes out 98% of the moisture.
Tell me more about the aging process
We let our Mate age for an average of nine months. We do this in order to maximize the amount of nutrients that one is able to receive from drinking our Mate.
What separates EcoTeas from other brands of Mate?
A few things. The fact that our Mate is unsmoked is a distinguishing factor, which has caused our main competitor to come out with a similar kind. Our price point is also very different. We sell 1 lb of Mate for $8.99.
Yeah, $8.99 is incredible compared to prices of other Mate brands sold in the States and Europe. How do you do it?
We have hardly raised our price because we don’t need to, and we’re really trying to stick to that. High prices usually reflect the costs of freight and promotion. We’re small, but mighty with only five full-time employees. We choose to spread the love of Mate through our low prices, instead of forcing it down someone’s throat. This also causes us to keep our product line very intimate.
What’s the vision for your company, and Mate overall?
Our goal is to continue to support our mission of creating organic and economical products with our teas, and to also remain privately owned.
Do you think Mate is growing in America?
The industry is definitely growing in America. According to the Spins Report, Yerba Mate is becoming a stronghold in the tea category. We also attempt to create a “coop-etition” with other companies, since there are different flavor profiles for everyone. You can also observe the proof of the growth of Mate on television and within pop culture, with Dr. Oz talking about Mate on his show, and Perez Hilton mentioning us as his favorite brand.