Monday, January 12, 2009

This tea is hot

This tea is hot
Copyright © 2006 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.

In an unscientific taste test, Staff Writer Meredith Goad "liked the plain, organic tea bags from Traditional Medicinals best. Celestial Seasonings' Morning Thunder, a blend of black tea and yerba mate , simply confused me. Tazo's Lemon mate is a blend of yerba mate infused with lemon, ginger and cardamom that can, the package says, "make you hear jungle birds talking all night long, and understand what they're saying."

Preparing the tea in a mate gourd can be a tricky business, with drinkers running the risk of sucking up a mouthful of stems or leaves.

Yerba mate is a popular beverage that is brewed from the dried leaves of a small tree in the holly family. It is being sold in local coffee shops, and an increasing number of home brewers are drinking it the traditional way - from a gourd.

According to Guayaki, a company that sells organic, fair-trade yerba mate and all of its accoutrements, there is a subtle language to serving mate. It's kind of like those little heart candies you pass around at Valentine's Day:

Friendship: Sweet mate
You are in my thoughts: mate with cinammon
I like you: mate with burnt sugar
Come for me: mate with orange peel
I sympathize with your sadness: mate with molasses
I'm so in love with you: Very hot mate
Marriage: mate with honey
True love: Foaming mate

People usually stop by Maine Roasters Coffee for a cup of joe made from their hand-roasted beans.

But here I was in their new South Portland shop, three cups lined up before me, preparing to sample the hottest new drink this side of the equator.

I'd seen all the hype about yerba mate (pronounced mah-tay), a tea-like beverage that is poised to become the next chai in the marketplace. It is a drink brewed from the dried leaves of a small tree in the holly family that grows in the rain forests of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay.

Yerba mate is billed as a healthful alternative to coffee, although not all of its benefits have been proven by researchers. It has some caffeine in it, so it gives a little pick-me-up without all the jitters. It has vitamins and minerals, too. And, like coffee, it contains lots of antioxidants that help boost the immune system, ward off disease, and retard the aging process.

In South America, yerba mate is known as the "Drink of the Gods," just the kind of tidbit that makes overstressed Americans looking for a quick fix feel all tingly inside. In November, the Center for Culinary Development in San Francisco predicted that yerba mate is going to be the Next Big Thing in American coffee shops and cafés.

Yerba mate's first fans were the South American Guarani Indians, who started brewing it centuries ago. Today folks in South American countries carry on the tradition of drinking the tea out of handmade gourds with metal straws called bombillas.

In places like Argentina, this is still a national pastime. People walk down the street sipping out of their own personal yerba mate gourds, kind of like Americans carrying around their designer water bottles.

Turns out this traditional method of drinking it also is catching on in the United States. Small cults of yerba mate gourd drinkers are popping up all over the place.

"It's almost like a lifestyle choice, I think," said Campbell Clegg, one of the owners of Maine Roasters Coffee, where yerba mate has been on the menu for just two or three weeks. "It's how Indiana Jones would drink it if he were here."