Gourd Life - Yerba Mate in Toronto

Yerba mate is the South American counterpart to tea and coffee slowly entering the Western mainstream. It's time to get wired like a gaucho.

My first encounter with yerba mate was during a sustained period of early (6am early!) gym-going before heading into the office. I needed a potent pick-me-up that didn't require me to run the coffee grinder, thus saving me from the wrath of waking up Kim. And, to be honest, a shot of espresso on an empty stomach isn't typically conducive to a couple hours of contact sports. Tea fit the bill, but its relatively lackluster caffeine content just wouldn't cut through the early morning grogginess.

Then, I found a reference to yerba mate by Tim Ferriss, the self-proclaimed life-hacker and author, who cites a combination of yerba mate, red wine, and dark chocolate as his top three stimulants for late-night writing. Some quick research revealed this may be the ticket; a cup of yerba mate contains about 85mg of caffeine, about as much as a standard cup of drip coffee, and twice as much as black tea. And at the reasonably low entry point of about $8 for a half pound of yerba mate on Amazon, it was worth a try.

Technically, yerba mate isn't strictly a tea; that's a definition reserved for beverages made from the leaves of the camellia sinensis, a plant grown exclusively in Asia from which all white, green, and black teas are derived. Yerba mate, instead, are the leaves of a member of the holly family cultivated in Argentina, Paraguay, Uraguay, and south Brazil. The harvested leaves are dried - often with a secondary smoking, which imparts a more smokey flavour. It's also possible to buy the leaves san mateo, meaning without smoking. Like tea and coffee, the preparation and consumption of yerba mate comes with its own rituals.

My first cup of yerba mate was an extremely confused affair: two tablespoons of yerba mate brewed in a standard tea steeping basket for 3 minutes. I was greeted by a flavour similar to that of a strong green tea: vegetal and grassy, with faint tannic bitterness. While not an incredibly polarizing flavour, it would be worth noting that, much like tea and coffee, it can be an acquired taste. I arrived to the gym with a chilled sense of god-like focus; yerba mate worked.

Getting Wired the South American Way

Also like tea and coffee, yerba mate gets you wired; repeated tests over a year-long period have confirmed that my first encounter was no placebo effect. A good portion of the energizing effects of the drink are owed to mate's caffeine content - some companies and websites refer to the active ingredient as mateine, though it's likely a marketing trick much like labeling the caffeine derived from guarana as guarine.

Unlike coffee, however, yerba mate (and tea, for that matter), contains other stimulants known as methylxanthines: most notably theobromine and theophylline. You may recognize theobromine as the main stimulant found in chocolate responsible for a feeling of calm euphoria. There's some synergistic effects between theobromine and caffeine in our body thought to result in a smoother caffeine hit without the peak and crash of pure caffeine.

Just like any stimulant, there's such a thing as too much of a good thing. After all, the dose makes the poison. Most studies I've found tend to recommend no more than 1.5 litres of yerba mate per day. This shouldn't really alarm you, that's a large amount of any beverage; I wouldn't recommend the same amount of strong coffee either for much the same reason.

Will the drink make you more creative? In short, no. Just like acid doesn't immediately make you as capable as Dali. The tone's in your fingers. But if you're looking for a tasty edge-up on your focus and energy, yerba mate couldn't hurt.

Preparing Is Caring

While it's possible to prepare yerba mate like normal tea like I did the first time - with hot water and the loose leaves placed in a steeping basket or French press - there's a much more traditional way to brew and drink it. A gourd - traditionally made of calabash, though now manufactured of metal, ceramic, and glass - is filled with dry leaves, filled with hot water, and drunk from a long thin metal filter/straw combination called a bombilla. A traditional yerba mate gourd ceremony with company is similar to a coffee break, only in this case the gourd is shared; each drinker drains the gourd, the brewer refills the container with more hot water, and the cup is passed around the circle.

The special drinking implements and sharing culture can be a real barrier to entry for those looking to try mate for the first time. Why not simply buy and brew yerba mate the way I've been doing for the better half of a year: with a French press? Internet-taught technique can only go so far; perhaps I was missing a crucial flavour or physiological effect by skipping the gourd. My attempts to find an authentic yerba mate experience in Toronto - and, hopefully, an authentic yerba mate flavour - yielded just one West-side shop dedicated to the drink: El Almacen.

Getting A Toronto Yerba Mate Fix

Tucked just off of the Ossington strip, the cafe proudly touts itself as a yerba mate cafe. It's a charmingly cozy shop playing funky, upbeat Latin-infused music. There's a different type of hipster there than your typical West-side coffee shop. Rather than a population dominated by skinny jeans and plaid, I was greeted by a clientele more inclined towards hand-knit wool sweaters and cargo pants made of hiking-ready fabric. At the same time that I passed judgement, 2 well-suited individuals chatting in Spanish strode into the cafe for their own yerba mate fix.

While El Almacen sports an impressive espresso machine and standard list of coffee-based drinks, it was the mate I was after. Ordering a yerba mate gourd results in table-side service: a full insulated carafe of hot water, a tray of loose mate and sugar, and - of course - the obligatory gourd and bombilla. Sensing my novice status, the server offered to walk me through my first gourd preparation. First, six teaspoons of mate were placed into the dry gourd, which the server then cupped the top with his hand, inverted the whole vessel, and shook firmly. Because of the way yerba mate is prepared, there's a good amount of particle variation; this is a way to ensure the finer bits end up at the top of the gourd, allowing the larger pieces to double as a filter. Next, hot water was added to the brim, followed by the bombilla and instructions to maybe let the mixture cool before my first sip.

And that first sip? Horrible. Since the gourd in question was made of wood, the first flavour to hit my palette was almost exclusively hardwood, followed by an intense vegetal sourness. Nowhere near the demure, tea-like nuances from my own preparations. Determined to persevere in the name of food science, I drained the gourd, waited for the water in my carafe to cool slightly, then re-brewed my cup. Subsequent brewings slowly softened the flavour of the drink and I found myself slowly dialing into the task at hand: taking tasting notes and enjoying the atmosphere. For apprehensive first-time samplers, don't let my experiences dissuade you. El Almacen offers a second, slightly cheaper option: a personal-sized serving of yerba mate brewed in a small French press that I recommend. Perhaps, like the bitterness of coffee or the tannic qualities of black tea, the gourd finish in a traditional preparation is an acquired taste savoured by seasoned mate drinkers.

What I did find, though, was that the cup and straw method of consumption for yerba mate allows one to linger on a single carafe of yerba mate without experiencing a cold drink. It lends itself incredibly well to the way that I like my caffeine consumption - slowly sipped over the course of an hour to the point where my standard cup of joe has gone tepid. It's also worth mentioning the incredible value that a gourd brings: two hours of beverage drinking and productivity for the price of a standard cup of specialty coffee.

One final feature of El Almacen is their shelf full of yerba mate to take home. While paying at the register, I picked up a starter kit made by a reputable Argentine brand, Pipore - complete with a ceramic gourd, metal bombilla, and a kilo of yerba mate. It's especially worth noting because of the lack of affordable drinking implements on Amazon and most web shops selling.

I'm happy to report that my new home yerba mate setup, complete with little insulated thermos, offers all of the joys of mate sipping without the taste or cleaning complexities of a wooden gourd. While coffee remains my cornerstone stimulant of choice - it's yerba mate that I reach for in the afternoon. The simple ritual of filling, shaking, and brewing the beverage is a welcome break from long stretches in front of work; and I've slowly come to find the grassy notes I can coax out of each brew a refreshing change of pace from the deep bitter-sweetness that I enjoy in coffee.

How To Brew Yerba Mate

Traditional Gourd

  • Fill gourd 1/3 full with yerba mate
  • Cup mouth of gourd with hand, invert, and shake in an up-down motion about 8 times
  • Flip gourd back. Fill to top with 85C (180F) water. You can keep reserve hot water in a thermos for prolonged drinking sessions.
  • With thumb over top of bombilla, insert with a scooping motion
  • Sip. Refill. Repeat.

French Press

Yerba mate to water ratio: 1 tbs (~5g) to 1 cup (250ml) of water

  • Place yerba mate in French press
  • Heat water to 85C (180F). You can use a fancy variable temperate kettle or simply boil water and add in cold water to the right temperature.
  • Add water. Steep for 3 to 5 minutes. Slowly press plunger. Drink.

Words by Nick Wong. Photos by Abhishek Dekate and Nick Wong.