Yerba mate, Paraguay style

Cold brew tea brand Mi Mate grows out of UCSD

Bottles of Mi Mate, a yerba mate brand launched by UCSD students
  • Bottles of Mi Mate, a yerba mate brand launched by UCSD students
  • Photo courtesy Mi Mate

You might not know it unless you’ve been to college recently, but the caffeinated South American tea yerba mate has become a bona fide beverage trend. Students returning from semesters abroad in Argentina probably deserve some credit, but the bulk goes to Guayaki, a yerba brand founded by students of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in 1996. Recruiting brand ambassadors on college campuses has helped it steadily build 40-million-a-year business. The students graduate, bring demand off campus, and just like that Guayaki looks poised to grow into a global brand, part of the surging “clean energy drink” market sprung up in alternative to the Monster Energy Drinks of the world.

As yerba mate’s sales pitch goes, though it’s comparable to coffee in caffeine strength, its stimulant effects are more evenly distributed, less prone to jitters or crashes. Other purported benefits include healthy antioxidants and the same sense of euphoria you get when eating chocolate. Thanks to Argentina’s famed yerba mate culture we know this much for certain: it stimulates social interactions and community.

So it makes a new local brand introduced on the UCSD campus last year has found quick success. Like Guayaki before it, Mi Mate was founded by students. Alan Luna, Eddie Muallem, and Yaniv Shemesh launched the brand out of a commercial kitchen in Chula Vista, bottling by hand and selling their first batch to UCSD dining halls and convenience stores. Less than a year later, Mi Mate is in local independent grocers including Seaside Market, Windmill Farms, and Jimbo’s, and is expanding into Los Angeles and a San Francisco supermarket chain.

Mi Mate isn’t only competing with Guayaki, either. Other high-profile businesses have jumped on the trend, including Marley Mate (yes, that Marley) and Yachak, distributed by Pepsi. However, a couple of notable traits do distinguish Mi Mate from the rest: one being that it’s imported from Paraguay.

“We scraped together some money to go to south America, and we spent three weeks traveling the backcountry,” recalls Luna. They kept coming back to Paraguay. Though Argentina may be best known yerba mate producer in South America, they found it was originally grown in Paraguayan territory, and yerba mate remains deeply ingrained in Paraguayan culture going back centuries.

Eventually they found a farm — or yerba terra — that met their goals for quality and social and environmental responsibility. They found a yerba terra that not only pays a living wage, but provides housing for its workers and schooling for their kids. It’s part of a movement by Paraguayan yerba mate farmers to protect virgin forest lands from loggers; it preserves 25 hectares of Atlantic rainforest.

This farm ages the leaves longer than most. Compared to Brazil, where yerba mate is served young, like matcha green tea, the yerba mate Mi Mate imports has been aged two years. “When you age it that long,” Shemesh says, “there are these more robust, maple, complex flavors released.”

Luna adds, “The way that they drink yerba mate in Paraguay is different from the way they do it in other parts of South America.” For one thing, rather then steep hot, they brew it cold, with ice water infused with herbs such as mint, chamomile, or lemon verbena; flavors echoed in Mi Mates teas.

Where Mi Mate stands out is it brews from whole leaf tea, rather than using extracts. Part of what allows them to do this is the embrace of newer filtration technologies and a pasteurization technique called high pressure processing. This makes the cold brew product shelf stable without adulterating the final product with heat pasteurization, meaning tea tastes closer to what they drink in Paraguay.

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