Organic Yerba Mate

I got the chance to review Aviva’s Wild Harvest Yerba Mate. Watch the video below where I shared my experience.

Woman drinking yerba mate in San Telmo, Buenos Aires

Woman drinking yerba mate in San Telmo, Buenos Aires

In order for me to elaborate on the topic of why Yerba Mate is so necessary today, I need to first introduce you to two people: Charles and Brad. Charles is a 34-year-old man working at the financial services firm, Goldman Sachs, as an Executive Director of Private Wealth Management. He lives on the Upper East Side of Manhattan with his dog Arty. Brad is a 37-year-old man who also works at Goldman Sachs. He title is Vice-President of Equity Capital Markets, and like Charles, Brad also lives on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Unlike Charles, Brad lives with his girlfriend and her 16-year-old daughter. The two executives met each other over seven years ago, at a recruiting event, and have been friends ever since.

Despite the fact that Charles and Brad are similar in age, work at the same company, hold senior-level positions, and live near each other, they couldn’t be more different. Let’s look at their daily routines. Charles wakes up at 6 A.M., makes a pot of coffee, and drinks an entire mug before heading to the shower. Once in the shower, Charles soaps up, shampoos his hair, and is out with his towel before 4 minutes is up. He always has his ties knotted, and his clothes picked out two nights in advance, so he gets dressed quickly and heads out the door without feeding Arty. He rushes to grab a bagel, a second cup of coffee from a vendor outside, and hops on the N train. Charles arrives in the office by 7:15 AM, even though work starts at 8:30 A.M. He prepares for his presentations, surfs the net for good restaurants that deliver, and does a load of other bullshit, with the same levels of intensity and rush, to occupy himself throughout his day. He gets home around 9 P.M., feeds Arty, quickly jumps into his pajamas (which he lays out on his bed in the morning) and falls asleep while watching American Idol. This is a normal day for Charles, and has essentially been same for the past eight years. Wake up. rush. Shower. rush. Eat. rush. Work. rush. Sleep. rush.

On the other hand, Brad has a different daily routine. He wakes up at 6 A.M., like Charles, but instead of making a cup of coffee, he walks to the florist next door, and buys his girlfriend a fresh handpicked bouquet of flowers. Then he returns back to his apartment, and usually makes his girlfriend’s daughter one of three things: A mushroom, onion, pepper, and flaxseed omelet, two pieces of toast with an egg in the middle of each with salt and black pepper lightly sprinkled on top, or a steamy stack of blueberry pancakes with maple syrup on the side. After making breakfast, he heats up some water to the point right before it begins to boil—75 degrees Celsius, as always. After the water is ready, he pours it in a thermos, and puts it on the kitchen table before he heads into the shower. After his shower, Brad goes through his collection of Yerba Mate brands—Guayaki, Canarias, Palo Alto, Aviva, Maté Factor, EcoTeas, Cruz De Malta, etc.—and eventually settles on one.

He goes through the Mate preparation routine—pour the yerba in the gourd, give it a little shake to get some of the polvo out, put the bombilla in (sometimes he puts in at the end), add the cold water in order to protect the nutrients, then the hot water—and takes his first sip of the day at 7:15 AM. After slowly finishing two gourd cycles, Brad heads into his room and picks out his clothes for the day. Once dressed, he kisses his sleeping girlfriend, and heads to Goldman Sachs with his Mate gourd in hand, and his thermos attached to the top of his briefcase. He sips a few gourds on his 20-block walk to work, and arrives at the office at 8:15 A.M. He takes the 15 minutes before work start to get himself organized, speak with colleagues, and call his girlfriend. His takes a break around 2:15 P.M., and heads to the park. He likes going to the park because every once in a while, a stranger comes up to him and asks him about the Mate he is drinking. He sits down, explains the history, tradition, and experience of the drink. They end up wanting to share some, so Brad (being the cebador) prepares them a gourd. They share stories about their pasts, their jobs, their lives, and their greatest joys.

These daily interactions make Brad’s days unique, different, and new. After his break, he heads back to the office, and is extremely productive throughout the whole day. Brad leaves the office around 6:30 P.M., and meets his girlfriend’s daughter at a local basketball court. They play ball for about an hour, and head back to his apartment—sweaty, dirty, and exhausted. Brad’s girlfriend usually has dinner ready by the time they get back, and they all share a meal together. Wake up. Breathe. Buy flowers. Breathe. Make breakfast. Breathe. Boil water. Breathe. Shower. Breathe. Prepare Mate. Breathe. Work. Breathe. Take a break. Breathe. Play basketball. Breathe. Dinner. Breathe. Sleep. Breathe.

On weekends, Brad and Charles meet up and discuss the events that took place during their weeks. Sometimes Brad brings Mate along, but Charles doesn’t drink it. On one of these weekends, Charles asks Brad a question that surprises him. “Hey Brad, can I ask you something?” “Shoot.” “How did you do it?” “Do what?” “How did you become less like me, and more like who you are right now? I remember when I first met you, we were basically the same. You were always in such a rush, remember? I recall you once telling me that the present was dead, and that you were already living in next Tuesday. What happened?” After hearing all of this, Brad stared into his friends somewhat confused face. After a minute of silence, Brad smiled widely before he spoke. “Remember that time I went to Paraguay, before I met Annie?” “Yeah, you said it was an enlightening experience. Actually, I think that was when you began to change.” “Exactly. I went there as a representative for the Equity Capital Markets division, and spent a few days in the hotel that Goldman picked out for me. After a few days, the water pipes in my room burst and the whole room became flooded. For some reason, the hotel couldn’t put me up in another room, and asked if I wanted to move to one of their affiliated buildings. I said yes, and as I was packing my things up, the woman who came to clean my room daily asked me where I would be moving to. I told her to a nearby building, and she suggested that I stay at her home with her and her family. I’m not exactly sure why I said yes, but I decided to take her up on the offer. She told me to wait around, and that she would take me to her home in a few hours. I spent an hour in the lobby working, and then she came. We took a slow bus that dropped us off on a dirt path in front of a building that looked like a glorified bathroom stall. She told me that her family of six lived there, and that they were probably all inside right now.

I walked inside and was greeted by a circle of people sitting down, all passing a weird cup around. The woman told me that it was called Mate, and that the gourd was shared by one group of people. Her husband greeted me, and told me to sit down. He passed me the gourd, and told me to not touch the straw, if possible. The first sip of the drink was bitter, but glorious. I immediately felt the warmth and love of those around me, and felt a surge of energy that I only have after a few cups of coffee. We shared Mate for hours, and I became closer with that family than I had been with others in years. I witnessed the fact that slow doesn’t automatically mean bad, and that the potential for joy, laughter, and life is infinite within any given moment. Something just clicked inside me, and it forever changed me.”

“Wow, Brad. Do you think you could rub some of that on me? Or maybe force some of that Mate down my throat so that my life can change, too?” Brad laughed. “It wasn’t just the Mate, Chuck. That was the vessel, the social catalyst. The real change comes from within yourself. Try substituting rush with breathe.” “Yeah, I’ll definitely try that. In the meantime, can you pass the gourd?”

Drink on.

Ecoteas yerba mate tea

Stefan, Juan, Milton of Eco Teas and Kraus Yerba Mate

(From left to right) Stefan, Juan, Milton

A few weeks after my interview with Steven Karr, from Guayaki, I came in contact with Stefan Schachter, founder of EcoTeas. After speaking with him for only a minute, I realized that Stefan is one of the people who, like Guayaki and other companies, has paved the road for Yerba Mate in the States. And by the end of the interview, I realized that the road is nowhere near being finished. Each brick has to be placed one-by-one, and it is in this interview that we see how one man–with an idea, friends, and a little luck–was able to build a company that has become the #1 loose-leaf Yerba Mate seller in the United States.

Matéo:

So a few people already know about the history of EcoTeas from the interview COD did with your Vice-President of Operations, but maybe you could tell everyone the story in your own words.

Stefan:

I went to Paraguay when I was seventeen, and I spent eight weeks there volunteering with an organization named Amigos De Las Americas. I lived in Southern rural Paraguay with a host family. That was the first time I discovered Mate, because literally everyone drinks Mate there. It’s pretty much done exclusively in a communal setting—where there’s one Mate in a circle…you know how it goes.

I thought that it was really cool, and when I got back from Paraguay, I had the idea of importing Mate into the States, and I fantasized a little bit about how I could do it. But, at that point, I was only seventeen and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I ended up finishing up high school in Arizona, went to college in California for four years, and by the end of college I was most interested in agriculture. And I was interested in how to garden. It was my passion. So after I graduated in 1996, I moved to Santa Cruz, California, which was only forty minutes from where I went to college. I started to learn how to farm. I ended up doing an ecological horticulture apprenticeship at UC Santa Cruz, and also spent a summer at UC Davis doing an internship in sustainable agriculture. I also spent a long season as a market gardener with a weekly roadside stand in Aromas, CA, a town of about 2500 people.

For about three years, I did different farming and gardening practices, and then I was in a place where I said, “Okay, this is great, I learned a lot about organic farming,” but I didn’t feel like I had a concrete direction at that point. I knew that growing food, as a living, would be a hard thing to do, especially in the greater Silicon Valley without any capital. Anyway, I went on a road trip and, on my trip, around 1999, I discovered that everywhere I went, I was running into people drinking Mate the traditional way—with the gourd and bombilla. I said, “Wow! This is crazy!” and then I went to Ashland, Oregon, and there was a café serving Mate traditional style.

Read a review on Ecoteas yerba mate >>

Matéo:

Woah. This is amazing; who were the companies that were selling Mate at that time?

Stefan:

The company at that time was actually just some local Argentinean guy who had his dad send him Mate, from Argentina, and he was literally distributing it to friends. It was very grassroots. I think he may have been repacking it under his own brand, but it was very rudimentary stuff, which is how we started, too.

I went to New Mexico, and my cousin was drinking Mate. He said, “Yeah I learned about this in our permaculture class.” I was sort of blown away by all of that, and I started drinking it again, and I just began to love the energy and experience of it all. And when I was drinking Mate with my cousin in New Mexico, I said, “Why is Mate not available every where you go?” He said that he didn’t know, but that it should be. It was at that point that I said, “I’m gonna make this happen.” From that moment on, I knew that it was my calling—bringing mate to North America.

At that point, in 1999, it was still very foreign. Even today, you could make the claim that it’s still foreign, but a lot more mainstream compared to how it was. So I finished my trip, went to Tuscon, Arizona, where my mom lived, and I spent a couple of months there working on a business plan. Then I moved back to Ashland, Oregon, and I met up with my best childhood friend, Brendan, and we moved into a house together. I pretty much started the business, and he was my right-hand man from the beginning. At first, he was working outside of the business, and then he quit his job and started to work with me full time.

We started by finding an importer, based in Colorado, which was bringing in organic Mate, in bulk bags. We would buy 30 kilo bags, repack them into different sizes, custom blend them with other herbs, and print labels out on our home printer. Then we would go to farmers’ markets and sell them, and also bring Mate to festivals. We were just getting it all going, and getting a feel about how to run a business, because it was all really brand new to both of us. After about a year or so, our good friend Joe moved out and became the third partner of the company.

At that point I felt like the business could really take off, so I went back to South America on a sourcing mission. I was looking for a good organic Mate grower, and that was when I found Kraus, in the Misiones region of Argentina. I met Milton Kraus, his family, and they were super cool people. They had a great product, they were super friendly, and we just hit it off with them. We started to buy directly from them, but we still didn’t have any capital at that point. I had taken a little loan from my mom to get started, but it wasn’t enough to keep going. The loan lasted for a couple of years, but we didn’t have an income from the business yet. So it was hard to figure out what to do next.

Milton visited us in Oregon. Basically Brendan, Joe, Milton, and myself were all hanging out together and talking. We had just gotten a warehouse space, our first one, but we had no inventory. So Milton said that he wanted to invest in us, and that he would become a partner in our company because we had a lot of potential. He saw that we needed capital and inventory, but he didn’t have cash to put into the business. But what he did have was yerba. So he ended up investing by giving us two container loads of Mate.

(From left to right) Joe, Stefan, Brendan

Matéo:

How much is two containers loads?

Stefan:

Let me think for a second. It’s probably about 20,000 kilos.

Matéo:

Wow, I’m curious…how did he get that to you? On a ship?

Stefan:

Yeah, he shipped it on an ocean vessel.

So he sent the first one, and we finally had some inventory. We packed it up by hand, and we started to build our wholesale accounts. Then we had the opportunity to buy the domain name yerbamate.com.

Matéo:

Yeah, I was actually thinking about that before. It’s really amazing how you were able to get that domain.

Stefan:

Yeah, we bought that back in 2002. Anyway, we started to get a lot of traffic right away, once we got that website, so we had both inventory and a market. That really got the business off the ground. Once we went through the first container, Milton sent the second container, and for a couple of years we didn’t have to buy any Mate. With all of this, we were able to build our capital, build our accounts, and build our business. By the third container, we had enough cash to be able to pay for it. So the Kraus family really got us on our feet, and we’re now Kraus’ best customer.

Milton (left) and Juan (Father) Kraus

Matéo:

That’s interesting, are you Kraus’ only customer?

Stefan:

We’re not Milton’s only customer, but we are his only customer in North America. We have an exclusive agreement with him for the North American marketplace, but he sells it in Argentina, and exports to some other countries, as well.

Matéo:

That’s awesome. Were you ever selling any other types of Mate, or just Kraus?

Stefan:

Yeah, before we met Kraus, we were buying from another seller, the Jaguar Yerba Company. We didn’t even know it at the time, but we were actually selling the organic Las Marias yerba. That was the very beginning. Once we found Kraus, we exclusively switched to Milton, for the most part, but we do have backup suppliers that we can draw from if we need to. Our partnership with Kraus is strong, so we work with them as much as we can.

Matéo:

When Kraus was shipping you the containers, was there an agreement that you all were partners, and that you would eventually split profits?

Stefan:

Yeah, Milton actually received 20% of EcoTeas in exchange for giving us the Mate. And we also continue to buy from him; we’re up to our 46th container now.

Matéo:

I see that you guys have the 1 lb Green Energy Mate, which I tried. Is that the only 1 lb product that you have? I also know that you have the Tulsi and Peppermint blend, but were you considering branching out?

Stefan:

Well, for now, we ended up going with a real simple product line in order to get established. We started with the 1 lb bag, and straight yerba tea bags, and those were our only two products for a long time. We eventually expanded in other directions. As far as loose yerba goes, we also have a 5 lb bag, but it’s still just pure yerba, not a blend. At the moment, we just focus on the 1 lb bag, and we’ve become a leader in the marketplace with that. And I think that part of it is that it’s a great product, and also that we don’t have any other competing loose yerba products. Since all of our energy and sales are focused on that one product, we are able to really dominate. We have the #1 yerba mate nationwide, and it’s also the #1 selling fair trade tea, and the #1 selling loose-leaf tea, and it’s the #1 selling caffeinated tea.

Matéo:

Really…what about Guayaki?

Stefan:

Yeah, so, on the liquid side they have all of their beverages and other products, but as far as the dry side, we outsell them. And that’s on the loose-leaf side, they outsell us on the tea bag side. They’re the #1 yerba mate tea bag, and we’re #2. We’re #1 in loose, and they’re #2 in loose.

Matéo:

I remember talking to your VP of Operations, and she said that there’s a sort of “co-opetition” between you and Guayaki, would you be able to tell me more about that?

Stefan:

Yeah. Over the years, in the spirit of the herb itself, we’ve had a friendly relationship with them. In certain ways, they’ve sort of been a big brother to us. We all help each other to grow the Mate category, even though we’re competing with each other. When we have a chance, we connect, have a conversation about how things are going, and also hash out issues that may be coming up in the industry.

Matéo:

In that same vein, do you all speak with companies like Aviva or The Maté Factor?

Stefan:

Are we cooperative with them as well? Yeah. The truth of it is that I don’t know The Maté Factor people very well. I’ve met them, but we don’t really talk. I actually known Dan from Aviva very well, and we’ve worked together in certain ways. We’ve supplied them with gourds and bulk yerba at times, as well. I would say that we definitely have a good relationship with them. Nativa is also in the mix as one of the top American companies.

Matéo:

What’s your vision for EcoTeas in America?

Stefan:

My vision at this point is to expand beyond yerba mate. Of course, we still love it, and it’s our #1 product, but we don’t see it as being the only magical herb out there. We want to build a key product line that is focused on yerba mate, but also other herbs.

Matéo:

Oh, like what?

Stefan:

Like rooibos. That’s one. And the other core herb right now is called Tulsi, it’s an herb from India. Those are our two other core herbs, but we’re also doing a gunpowder green tea right now, and we also have our caffeine-free chai that has a rooibos base. And so, the idea is that we want to establish ourselves as a solid tea brand for the natural products industry. We don’t want to pigeonhole ourselves as just a yerba mate brand. We’re trying to expand our brand identification, and we’re really trying to get to the point where we have enough shelf presence and sales, that a store wouldn’t even imagine not having us on their shelves. It’s really easy to get shoved to the corner of a shelf and disappear. We want to get to the point where if we do disappear from a shelf, people notice. We would like to have at least between a half to full shelf of presence, with great and diverse selling products that are ethically sourced, organic, fair trade, kosher, non-GMO, and also packaged responsibly. We want all of the different certifications and indicators of quality and ethics.

The way the market is going, the natural foods industry is becoming more mainstream. And more supermarket chains are getting involved. As that happens, we’re planning on going along for the ride, and to some extent, I would say, we’re doing that. An example of this is Target. We’re selling in 200 Targets, and I didn’t even know about it until it happened.

Matéo:

What’s your take on Mate, and the growth of it, in the States? I’m sure it’s a lot different from the way it was in 1999 when you were on your road trip.

Stefan:

Overall, yerba mate as a category is now a core part of the tea category. There’s no question about it. Any natural foods store you walk into will either have Guayaki, EcoTeas, or both. Most have both. And maybe some other brands as well. It’s pretty ubiquitous at this point. It’s not quite ubiquitous in the mainstream, but you’ll find yerba mate all over the place. It’s definitely caught on in a major way, and I think that Guayaki was smart to put Mate in a bottle and a can. They’re appealing to American consumers, opposed to the traditional Mate drinker. I think because of that, it’s becoming more widely known, and the market has grown substantially from where it was in the past. Your website is playing a key part of creating the buzz about Mate, which expands it, draws interest, and grows the Mate category overall.

Guayaki yerba mate tea

Guayaki yerba mate tea

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.

Explore the history of yerba mate from 1500–2000 >>

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.

The history of Poland and yerba mate >>

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.

 

 

Friends sharing yerba mate

The simplicity of the gourd is overwhelming, yet it continues to attract people far and wide. The herb is heard for miles, and strangers transform into friends with each pull of the bombilla. A bond is formed, and a mutual feeling is established that screams “WE ARE BROTHERS AND SISTERS IN THIS MOMENT,” causing everything else to lose its importance — race, religion, rules, and rights.

The circle is never-ending, and something is established beyond the gourd. What is it? A friendship? Connection? Ah, those labels are for the world of words. I’ll stick with feeling. It’s a feeling, and regardless of how much you read or hear about it, you won’t know it until you experience it. Pass the gourd please.

Need help getting started? Here’s our official yerba mate buying guide >>

yerba mate store

Urushop Yerba Mate StoreI was recently given the opportunity to interview Renzo, co-founder of Urushop, via e-mail. Urushop is an amazing yerba mate and mate accessory store, based in the UK. Read on to find out how it all started, who the people behind the shop are, and where they’re going with it!

What inspired you to start your own shop?

Renzo:

Since I was a kid I always wanted to have my own business and after trying many things without much success I founded this one, which I really enjoy as this is my culture (I am from Uruguay, by the way). I think that is the reason why we are successful in what we do simply because we like it and know our products.

Why the UK?

Renzo:

I run this business with my wife Emma, she is from the UK and about 5 years ago we decided to live close to at least one of the families, and as you might already guess we picked Leicester in the UK.

How did you do it?

Renzo:

It all started with 4 kilos of Yerba Canarias that we brought back with us from Uruguay when we just moved to the UK. I started looking where I could buy it from for the future and found that it was quite difficult to get.

So we decided to try to sell one of the 4 kilos on eBay and to our surprise we sold it in 2 days! After that we started researching suppliers and ways to import it, and we made our first order of 40 kilos! We have been growing ever since, adding around 80 different brands & variations of yerba mate; over 30 different types of accessories; and a range of foods traditional to Uruguay, Argentina, and Brazil.

Who did you do it with? Did you start it with old friends?

Renzo:

I started this shop with my wife Emma and we are an excellent team as she likes the culture, knows the language, and has a degree in business management; while I am more on the IT and marketing side of things.

How many employees do you have? Is Urushop just a family shop?

Renzo:

UruShop for now is a family shop — managed by the two of us and occasionally we receive help from all our family especially, Laura (Emma’s sister). We also helped my brother and a friend in Uruguay to start a leather mate accessories business in Uruguay; they have 4 employees and make probably one of the highest quality leather accessories for yerba mate in the world 🙂 The rest of my family and friends always give us a hand when they are around.

Need a gourd? View our collection here >>

What’s up with the name Urushop? Where did that come from? Does Uru refer to Uruguay?

Renzo:

The name UruShop came a long time ago before having the idea of selling South American products. My idea was that I wanted to have an online shop, but I didn’t know what I wanted to sell and therefore I had to pick a generic name. Yes the Uru refers to Uruguay (my country); some people confuse it with euro which might sound similar.

Was it hard to begin importing yerba?

Renzo:

It’s not easy as I had a language barrier and we both needed to understand how the tax and legal implications would affect us. Then the other problem is that yerba is quite a heavy product and is expensive to buy in small quantities, but at same time it has an expiration date so it is a bit tricky to forecast sales and find the balance to get it cheaper and make it cheaper for our customers.

I saw on your website that you don’t sell any America Mate brands like Guayaki, EcoTeas, The Maté Factor, or Aviva. Why is that?

Renzo:

So far we are selling mainly South American products as we did not have many people requesting any American brands; however, we might be introducing them in the future, as a lot of them are very interesting.

Are you shipping Mate to a lot of other countries in Europe, or just the UK?

Renzo:

[We are selling only in the UK] Because the majority of our products are quite heavy the only country where we can compete is in the UK due to shipping costs; however, we do sell a few accessories all over Europe, though.

What’s your Mate story, how did you get into it?

Renzo:

Like most Uruguayans I have been drinking mate frequently since I was a kid; I can’t really remember when was the first time I tried it (I was probably too young to remember)

Most people don’t think about the UK when it comes to Mate, what’s the Mate culture like over there? Is it growing?

 

Explore more yerba mate interviews >>

Renzo:

It’s a hard market as it’s only a small percentage of the UK population that consume mate. We are trying our best to promote it and to be honest I am not sure if is growing or just that more people know our shop.

What made you the most well known Mate outlet in UK?

Renzo:

Oh well first of all thanks for the compliment 🙂 We have worked really hard to be where we are; we always tried to be professionals since the beginning, even if we sold 500 grams of yerba in a week we had make the effort to ship quickly, walking about a kilometer to get to the post office.

Since those days we have grown and have an efficient set up, including daily collections by three courier companies. We continue dedicating a lot of effort to give a sincere and personal customer service. For people who are new to Yerba Mate, there are lots of questions so we try to answer them and provide information on our website. We have even added a live chat function to try and help people even quicker. If a customer requests an item, we do try our best to source it for them, and we listen and act on suggestions about how we can improve our service.

I think our professionalism and personalized service and quality of the products are the key to our success. We have developed a very loyal customer base, and we find that our customers are very thoughtful, enjoyable customers to work with.

What’s your vision for Mate?

Renzo:

Our vision is to try to get everyone drinking mate properly! — hence all the photo instructions etc. on the website. We see that so many people just put some Yerba in a gourd then some water, stir it with a spoon and drink from that! It’s no wonder why many people say that mate is horrible!

Other people for example try to do it properly, but then they fill it up with water, only taking a few little sips every 10 minutes: you can imagine that the first sip will taste OK and the rest will be taste worse and worse every time; also, by then the Yerba will be “washed” really quickly which will shorten up the amount of water that you can drink using the same Yerba.

Mate is a really special flavor and for people to have a chance to like it it has to be prepared the right way!

Thanks so much Renzo! To order Mate within the UK, or mate accessories, check out Urushop!

woman drinking yerba mate in Thailand

Short on time? Quickly learn what yerba mate tea is all about in less than 3 minutes.

Quick (2.5 min) Guide to Yerba Mate

Drink on!

Ecoteas yerba mate tea

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?

Dee:

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?

Dee:

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?

Dee:

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?

Dee:

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?

Dee:

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?

Dee:

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.

Read the 2014 State of Yerba Mate Address >>

What’s your drying/ smoking process?

Dee:

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

Dee:

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?

Dee:

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?

Dee:

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?

Dee:

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?

Dee:

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.

Drink on!