Stay Awake, Mate

Guayaki Bottled Yerba Mate
Guayaki Bottled Yerba Mate
Traditional Gourd and Bombilla
Traditional Gourd and Bombilla

I've noticed that life-after-college doesn't warrant too many events that require me to stay up to the wee hours of the dawn. This being said, I mean working on something that I had no desire to really accomplish and found pointless at the time, but did so anyway to get that all important piece of parchment and not to face my mother's wrath. No more 15 page papers on post-something or the other or struggling to memorize in detail the Fourteen Points of the Treaty of Versailles for the final the next day. Of course, my fuel of choice in those desperate times was coffee or some awful energy drink. Normally, I was a tea drinker, but never felt that tea was cut out for the important task of keeping me up to see both the sunset and the sunrise, glaring into my bloodshot eyes as I stumbled to my first period exam.

Now that I'm out and about in the Real World, I've grown wiser, and have discovered the beauty in preparing really good, high quality teas. It has become part of my daily routine- an Assam or Yunnan in the morning, Dragonwell or Silver Needle during the afternoon, and a nice big cup of Rooibos before bedtime. It usually keeps me functioning, and I don't get the bad side effects such as crashing sometime in the afternoon, or being so jittery at night that sleep would escape me.

However, once in a while I find myself staying up too late, either due to an impromptu dance party or the mistake of trying to watch an entire season of Lost, then waking up far too early. And of course, those are the days where one cannot snuggle back under the sheets, but instead one has to go to work, or watch small children, or go on that promised hike through the Delaware Water Gap. Tea can do the job, but was there any other non-coffee alternatives? That is when I found out about Yerba Maté. Of course, I don't drink this tea-like drink too often, but I do enjoy it on those days that I need a bit more energy to get through the day.

Yerba Maté is not a true tea (meaning it does not derive from the Camilla sinesis tea plant) and is naturally packed with antioxidants and caffeine. And like tea, the caffeine in Yerba Maté did not create that awful restless feeling I would experience after 3 large French roasts. It is cultivated from the leaves of the Ilex paraguariensis tree native to the rainforests of South America, particularly in Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia, and Argentina, where the drink is the most popular. The leaves are dried and crushed, much like the leaves of the tea plant.

Yerba Maté has a very rich history, just like tea. The drink is traced back to the Guarani, the native people of Paraguay. It was central to their diet and culture; used in day-to-day customs and as a form of herbal medicine. In modern-day South America, it is very common to see in Yerba Maté producing countries, people drinking out of the traditional gourd and bombilla- a metal tube that both acts as both a straw and sieve for the drink. They enjoy it solo or share it with a friend. There is the Maté drinking ceremony where the cebador, one who prepares the Maté, tastes the Maté first, as a type of quality control, before sharing the gourd with friends. If only we had known about Maté back in the dorms! An image of tired college kids in pajamas crowded in a circle on the quad, as their R.A. passes a gourd fills my head.

I asked some of my colleagues about it. Their responses were either of indifference or they likened it to sawdust in a cup. I however cannot pass judgment on something I've never tried. On hand to help me taste some teas was my dear friend and old roomMaté from college, Emily. We had spent many a nights burning the midnight oil studying and partying and would see each other the morning after at our worse. She seemed slightly frightened about the sawdust comparison, but as always, was looking for something to keep her energized. Here are our favorites:

Best Plain Yerba Maté: Nativa Yerba Maté. Found the scent to be slightly sweeter that the other ones, which had too much of a smoky-scent. The taste is woody and subtle, and is good if you are interested in blending Maté with other herbs and spices.

Best Flavored Yerba Maté: Rishi Teas Lemongrass and Guayaki Maté Chocolate. As Lemongrass is a pretty potent herb, the Rishi Teas' blend did not overpower the Maté; you could taste the Maté, but it was made less harsh. The smell alone of the Maté and lemongrass pairing was very invigorating! The Guayaki Maté Chocolate was spicy and almost chai-like as the chocolate was blended with cinnamon and nutmeg. Very sweet (there is also organic Stevia in there), this Maté chocolate would be perfect with a little milk.

Best Yerba Maté Convenience Product: Guayaki's Line of Ready to Drink Yerba Maté bottled beverages. These drinks, which are delicious out of the fridge, are available in seven different flavors from Traditional Maté to Passion fruit. They are also very low in sugar, calories, and carbs if you're watching that kind of stuff. This convenient drink is a healthier substitution for those 'party/study-like-a-rockstar' energy drinks- perfect for the busy college student to grab in between classes or for the daily commuter.

Some useful Yerba Maté tidbits:

-Use hot water, but not boiling water for the best results (around 150 degrees is sufficient). Also, if your water is too hot, it will heat up the metal bombilla, which in turn will burn your mouth. Ouch.

-If you are going to prepare your Maté the traditional way, by using a gourd, be sure to ‘cure' your gourd. This basically sanitizes it, as well as develops the flavor of the Maté. You can find directions on how to cure a gourd here

-Yerba Maté is also a popular drink in Syria and Lebanon, the largest importer of yerba Maté being Syria.

-If you are drinking Maté from the gourd, you can usually use the same loose-leaf Maté for the rest of the day- up to twenty infusions!

-If you're ever in Uruguay, hankering for some Maté to get you through the day, don't drink and drive! The country has passed a national law that prohibits the drinking of Maté while driving as it has caused accidents from drivers who have spilled the hot water on them.

After all our taste testing, we felt energized enough…to order a large pizza. I guess college habits never leave you completely. But we did opt to pick it up instead of having it delivered. That does count for something, right?

Check out the products we tried at these fine sites:
Rishi Tea
Nativa Herbs