The Coffee Alternative Americans Just Can’t Get Behind

by

It shouldn’t be hard to persuade people to take a sip of yerba mate. It’s completely natural. It makes you feel simultaneously energized and relaxed. You can drink it all day without feeling like your stomach acid is burning through your esophagus. It’s the preferred caffeine source of Lionel Messi, Zoe Saldaña, and the Pope. I’m drinking yerba mate with my Argentinian mother-in-law as I write this, and I’ll probably be drinking it with her or my husband when you read it. And yet, my track record for tempting friends into tasting it is abysmal.

The average Argentinian or Uruguayan drinks more than 26 gallons of the green infusion each year, but as far as I can tell, the average North American has never even tried South America’s most consumed beverage—at least not in its traditional form. After more than 100 years, plenty of added sugar, and growing consumer desire for “clean caffeine,” something companies are calling yerba mate is finally on shelves near you. But in this land of individualism and germophobia, the real thing will simply never catch on.

The plant has been seen as a moneymaking commodity since Europeans first arrived in the Americas. Long before North Americans rejected yerba mate, European colonizers were falling head over heels for the stuff. Within a few decades of their arrival in what is now Paraguay in the early 16th century, the Spanish were already drinking the local infusion they’d picked up from the indigenous Guaraní. The Guaraní people had used yerba mate—which they called ka’a—as a stimulant and for its medicinal effects since time immemorial. They collected leaves from a particular species of holly, dried them, and then either chewed the ka’a or placed it in an orange-size gourd to be steeped in water and passed among friends.

Early 19th century lithograph of José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia, ruler of Paraguay, holding yerba mate (1814-1840)
An early-19th-century lithograph of José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia, the ruler of Paraguay, holding yerba mate (Source: Letters on Paraguay by John Parish Robertson and William Parish Robertson)

The Spanish liked the energy yerba mate gave them and began selling the leaves. But according to Christine Folch, the author of the upcoming book Yerba Mate: A Stimulating Cultural History, Jesuit missionaries in Paraguay were the ones who transformed yerba mate into a true cash crop, by developing techniques for cultivating it on a large scale—methods that relied on the forced labor of indigenous people. Yerba-mate use exploded. By the 1700s, it was consumed all over South America:from what is now Paraguay across Peru, Bolivia, southern Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, and Chile.

In the United States, the first major push to popularize and cultivate yerba mate didn’t happen until 1899, when representatives from Brazil and Paraguay boasted about its benefits at the International Commercial Congress in Philadelphia. Soon after, the first U.S.-based firm, the Yerba Maté Tea Company, was founded. The company’s marketing slogan was straightforward and catchy: “Drink Yerba Maté Tea and be happy.” “Here, then, we have an ideal drink,” a 1900 Yerba Maté Tea Company pamphlet proclaimed, “one that promotes digestion, gives immediate strength of the body and brain and acts soothingly upon the nervous system.” Plus, it added, “the ladies will be especially interested to know that it exercises absolutely no bad effects upon the complexion.”

Early 20th-century advertisement of a woman in a large hat drinking yerba mate with the caption "Drink Yerba Mate and be happy"
Promotional material published by the Yerba Maté Tea Company in 1900 (Source: Yerba Maté Tea by William Mill Butler)

The promotion frothed up interest: Curious individuals wrote to their local newspaper asking where to buy yerba mate, and farmers searched for information on how to grow it. Newspaper articles from the time prophesied a future when yerba mate might displace tea and coffee. Entrepreneurs formed new companies hawking yerba mate; some saw Prohibition as a perfect opening for the buzzy nonalcoholic drink. It was peddled hot and cold. In the 1930s, the United States Army even considered distributing daily rations of the beverage to soldiers.

And yet, by the end of the 1930s, demand remained low. Marketers were perplexed, writing, “When can we expect an increase in consumption? The United States and France have proven themselves impervious to all temptation.” Americans just didn’t seem to have a taste for yerba mate; one 1921 review in the New York Herald read, “The flavor and taste were of a peculiar rank and insipid nature. If our South American friends can relish this beverage they are very welcome to all of it that grows.”

[Read: The quest to make the best worst cup of coffee]

True, yerba mate is bitter and tastes like freshly cut grass. But coffee tastes like burnt rubber the first time you try it, and Americans can’t get enough. Something deeper is going on here. Ximena Díaz Alarcón, an Argentinian marketing and consumer-trends researcher, says it makes sense that Americans never put down their mugs of coffee or tea to pick up a gourd filled with yerba mate. “There’s no cultural fit,” she told me from her home in Buenos Aires.

Traditionally, yerba mate is consumed from a shared gourd through a shared straw called a bombilla. “Here in Argentina,” Alarcón said, “mate is a cultural habit, it is a tradition, and it is about sharing with others.” But sitting down for an hour or two and sharing a beverage, especially from the same straw, is not something Americans are accustomed to.

Still, even when entrepreneurs of the past stripped away the communal aspect of yerba mate and sold it to North Americans in individual tea bags, coffee and tea definitively won out. That makes sense: A huge part of the appeal of mate is the ritual and community of it, not just the compounds it contains. Bagged mate simply doesn’t have as much going for it. In order to persuade Americans who have no connection to the tradition of yerba mate to incorporate it into their lives, the drink has to be both convenient and superior to coffee or tea—in the process, losing the very things that make it so beloved in South America.

[From the April 2020 issue: Capitalism’s favorite drug]

Over the past decade, Americans’ burgeoning thirst for healthy, plant-based caffeinated drinks has helped bring yerba mate into food fashion—at least superficially. Today, you can find it at the corner store and at major grocery chains such as Whole Foods and Walmart. But the yerba mate that fits American culture has no leaves, no straws, and no gourd. Instead, it is an ingredient mixed into canned and bottled energy drinks. This style of yerba mate is convenient and fast, and requires no swapping of spit.

Although carbonated, canned yerba mate has been around since the 1920s, the demand for it is new. Today, “people want more natural products and simpler ingredient lists,” says Martín Caballero, an editor at BevNET who grew up drinking yerba mate when visiting family in Argentina. “So using yerba mate as an energy caffeine source has been something we’ve seen more of.” Like, a lot more: In 2021, the Coca-Cola Company launched Honest Yerba Mate; Perrier now has an “Energize” line featuring yerba mate, and the start-up Guru sells an organic energy drink “inspired by Amazonia’s powerful botanicals.” (For the record, yerba mate doesn’t actually grow in the Amazon.)

At least one company has directly felt the difference between marketing real yerba mate and the diluted stuff. Guayakí, founded in 1996, built its entire business around working with indigenous communities in Paraguay to sustainably grow the plant. At first, the company sold only tea bags and loose-leaf yerba mate, but in the mid-2000s, it shifted its focus to selling yerba-mate energy drinks. Adding bubbles and sugar paid off, as did an ambitious marketing campaign targeting college students: Over the past decade, Guayakí has likely introduced more Americans to yerba mate than all previous marketing efforts combined. And although I admire their efforts and business philosophy, their canned “Classic Gold” tastes an awful lot like watered-down Diet Coke. But perhaps that’s the strategy.

[Read: Always have three beverages]

These days, it’s easy to find young influencers promoting the canned version of yerba mate—or, as they often call it, “yerb.” Meanwhile, I’ve mostly given up my role as an ambassador for old-school yerba mate. My friends and colleagues just aren’t interested in sharing a green, bitter drink. But my baby couldn’t be more excited about it. Every morning, we offer her our gourd and silver straw (after sucking up the warm water so she doesn’t get jacked up on caffeine), and she grins before placing la bombilla between her tiny lips. I like to think she loves it for the same reason I do: not for the taste, but for the intimacy and ritual.

Related Posts