Monday, January 12, 2009

YERBA mate 101

I decided to see what all the fuss is about. I started with the trip to Maine Roasters Coffee, where Clegg introduced me to three different versions of the drink.

First in line was yerba mate , straight up.

Can you say "Moo?"

Yes, indeed, it tasted a lot like sweet hay. The grassy flavor is supposed to be an acquired taste.

Actually, all joking aside, I acquired it fairly quickly. But I also like green tea, Japanese twig tea - anything with earthy, almost bitter overtones.

Beyond the flavor, I like the fact that yerba mate leaves must be brewed for at least 20 minutes to get the full health benefits. The longer you brew it, the better it is for you, without developing too strong a taste. That means I can get some started, then wander off and forget about it for a while without ruining the whole batch.

To make yerba mate more accessible to everyone, and thus more marketable, some retailers are adding milk and sugar, as well as flavorings and spices such as vanilla and cardamom.

That brings me to the next two samples I tried: A yerba mate latte and mate chai latte. Try saying that three times real fast.

The yerba mate latte ($2.85, compared with $1.45 for the plain tea) was made from a concentrate that Clegg sells in his stores. It was warm and milky, with a subtle sweetness. Clegg said this version has become his favorite, and I can see why. ("Oooh, that is good," I believe were my exact words.)

I was pretty sure I wouldn't like the mate chai latte, even before I tried it. Corporate America ruined "regular" chai when it marketed it to the masses, turning it into a sickly sweet concoction fit only for tastebuds trained on junk food. I love real chai so much that I drank it out of dirty glasses at trailside stands in the Himalayas, and today I make my own homemade chai using a spice blend I buy from an Indian woman. So commercial versions are kind of an abomination to me.

Well, it turns out the mate chai latte ($2.85) is actually pretty good. It's still too sweet for me, but at least it's not like drinking a pound of sugar.

I decided to continue my yerba experiment over the long weekend. I bought a traditional mate gourd and bombilla from Clegg, and also dropped by Wild Oats to pick up three kinds of yerba mate tea bags to see what they were like.

I 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." It tasted great, but wasn't all that different from other lemon-ginger teas.