Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Yerba mate drunk by Matt Dillon, Madonna, Alicia Silverstone and rocker Flea

If you've seen the Che Guevera biopic The Motorcycle Diaries, you might wonder what the heck Ernesto and Alberto were drinking.

"Good feeling": The holly-shrub concoction is loaded with anti-oxidants. But unless you add honey, it tastes "bitter and grassy."
Sipping through a metal "straw" from a shared gourd, the easy riders kept their energy up with yerba maté (mah-tay), a traditional South American drink — and ritual — that's the hottest U.S. beverage since green tea and chai. (Related story: The health benefits of yerba mate)

Made from the holly shrub of the South American rain forest, maté has gained celebrity status recently, reportedly drunk by Matt Dillon, Madonna, Alicia Silverstone and rocker Flea, among others. Musician Moby sells it at Teany, his New York City cafe. And the International Association of Culinary Professionals recently named it one of the top five food trends for 2006.

Why the sudden popularity? Drinkers laud its anti-oxidant-loaded health benefits. It can't be the taste: Even devotees liken it to stewed hay — "bitter and very grassy," says Oren Arnon, general manager of the Brooklyn Tea Lounge. "Up to a year ago, no one knew what it was," but now "people who are into it sit here and sip for hours."

Drinking maté is a traditional social activity in Mexico, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay. Family or friends pass around a gourd of the brew, sipped through a bombilla ("little pump" or "straw"), often made of silver.

In the USA, you don't need to go anywhere to drink it: You can buy the dried, chopped and ground maté leaves in bulk or in tea bags at grocery chains including Whole Foods, Trader Joe's and Wegmans.

But what could really make maté take off, says Perry Abbenante, Whole Foods' national grocery buyer, is a new form: Guayaki's cold, bottled Yerba Maté Organic Energy Drink, which retails for $2.29 and comes in raspberry, mint and traditional flavors.

Guayaki, which dominates the U.S. maté market, produces and distributes organic maté "from source to shelf," says co-founder David Karr. The company began a decade ago when he, his brother and a pal "spent years crossing the country in a van, handing out more than 5 million" free samples.

"We'd set up a table, put out some nice flowers, and talk about this healthy source of caffeine," Karr says.

Now Guayaki is a multimillion-dollar-a-year business; it sells about 100 tons of the stuff each year. "Its health benefits bring people to maté," he says, "but the good feeling" keeps them drinking it.

Jimmy Pumarol, general manager of the "nuevo Latin" restaurant Café Atlántico in Washington, D.C., agrees. Once he tells his clientele about maté's benefits, "they don't care what it tastes like," he says. "It's good for your lungs, your liver, kidneys, stomach." The bartender will even make a yerba maté old fashioned — maté leaves are steeped in hot water before bourbon is added.

Claims about maté's effects range from a "high" or an immune-system booster to an aid for digestion, alertness, healing or weight loss .

Its effect is "more mental clarity than it is a buzz, " Karr explains. After his Argentine friend introduced him to the drink, Karr says, "it cleared up all my allergies — I had hay fever and was allergic to practically everything green."

Tatiana Becker, co-owner of the Trabant Chai Lounge in Seattle, is one of the sample-tasting converts. When she's fixing a drink for herself, she says, "I make what I call a Vanilla Rooibos" (a red South African tea): She brews the maté in vanilla syrup, then adds the tea and lets it all steep. Some customers like to sweeten the straight maté with honey.

"Our bulk order keeps going up," she says. "We have three brewing baskets in our espresso machine, and one is dedicated to maté." The lounge has a monthly tango night, and dancers "are really into maté."

Trabant sells it retail as well — in 16 tea-bag boxes ($6.95) or half-pound bags.

"We also carry a Guayaki kit that has the loose mix, the gourd, the bombilla and an instruction booklet," Becker says.

Now Guayaki hopes to spark a "bevolution" with its new energy drink, Karr says: The "grab-it-and-go" bottles will be available nationwide starting this month.

Better than red wine or green tea?

By Anne Goodfriend, USA TODAY Yerba maté has been extolled as a healthful energy drink. (Related story: Yerba maté: The accent is on popular health drink | 10 great places to get jazzed about great java) Two studies, one of them conducted in 2004 at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana and the other in 2005 by the Glycation, Oxidation and Disease Laboratory at Touro University in Vallejo, Calif., found some positive benefits:

• Thanks to its high anti-oxidant content, maté promotes cell survival better than red wine or green tea.

• Maté and ardisia tea (popular on Mexico's Pacific coast) "may share a public health potential," the 2004 study says.

Another benefit: what Tim Butler of Reno calls "the zip without the zap of coffee" in the testimonials on the website

Even though it contains caffeine, maté also has xanthine alkaloids: one is a stimulant found in tea, and another is the mood elevator and muscle relaxant found in chocolate.

Maté also is loaded with B vitamins, which "nourish the nervous system and ... raise metabolism," says David Karr, co-founder of Guayaki, a major U.S. purveyor.