'That's a load of crap! That's not mate!"
I'm in Patagonian Argentina, and Vivi Pitrelli is reacting to an American chocolate-raspberry yerba mate organic energy shot. Including some friends of the family, there are seven of us lounging around the table after dinner.
Catalina Vicintini, a 20-year-old dance student, swigs off the little brown bottle, covers her mouth and crinkles her face.
"It's the grossest thing! It's disgusting! It's disgusting! It's disgusting!" she cries out in Castellano, Argentina's dialect of Spanish. Everyone busts out laughing.
"What the fuck's in it?" asks Pitrelli.
Though the bottle's label identifies it as a yerba mate energy shot, it is a yerba mate unrecognizable to Pitrelli, the 16 other Argentines I interview and the cultural historians I read during a recent month in Patagonia
As mate-based products have exploded in popularity in the United States, the infusion has been redefined to meet American tastes, with Sebastopol's Guayakí leading the way. To American-born consumers, the well-respected Guayakí is synonymous with mate: Guayakí sells around two-thirds of all mate consumed in the United States, the remainder consisting of South American brands popular with native mate-drinking immigrants.
Adapting mate to American palates is central to Guayakí's success. "We're making it available to the gringo in the way the gringo wants to take it," remarked David Karr, cofounder of Guayakí, in a 2010 Bloomberg article titled "Guayakí Wants to Take Yerba Mate from Niche to 7-11 Staple." And the gringo certainly wants to take it: around 60 percent of Guayakí's approximately $15 million annual revenue comes from pre-made mate products sold in bottles and cans—products unheard of in mate's native Southern Cone.
However, globalizing and redefining mate has larger implications than most commodities. Americans aren't surprised to know that cultural U.S. icons like Coca-Cola, for example, are consumed worldwide. Mate, on the other hand, represents and influences life in the Southern Cone much more than anything we eat or drink in America. While drinking a mate latte in the States isn't sacrilegious, per se—like runway models flaunting mock American Indian headdresses—native mate drinkers aren't happy with how their infusion is represented here, and they have some words for American consumers.
First of all, what is mate, and what does the act of consuming it mean? As Argentine geographer Felix Coluccio puts it, "Drinking mate is the most significant popular custom in Argentine life, from the deepest roots of the existence of people in South America." Formally, mate is both the infusion and the receptacle, usually made of gourd, wood or metal. The infusion of water and loose yerba, the leaves and stems of a species of caffeinated holly, is drunk from the mate through a bombilla (straw filter).
The indigenous Guaraní have consumed it for thousands of years in Paraguay, northeastern Argentina, southern Brazil, and parts of Bolivia and Uruguay. After colonization, mate and the rural gaucho became inseparable, and the infusion became deeply entrenched in social life in the rest of Argentina and parts of Chile.
Unlike other infusions, mate doesn't stand and steep; the mate is filled and refilled with water, but the yerba endures. As a result, drinkers have developed countless techniques to keep the infusion even and delicious. Additionally, because custom calls for multiple people sharing the same straw and gourd, the act of drinking mate connotes trust and hospitality. A complex culture and vocabulary has reflexively evolved around its ceremony.
"To drink mate is to share," Pitrelli explains. "It's something intimate."
In the language of mate, quotidian objects take on new properties. Water can be tempered, burned or served raw. Kettles can spout wings and fly, or they can dance around the stovetop. Figuratively, mate can be saddled up or plugged, served tufted, in the formation of a star, or like a rancher. It can be hung up or drunk peeled, or it can be long or short. Layered into this vocabulary are jokes and insults and cultural nuances sometimes more powerful than the spoken word.
At least one figure in gaucho folklore has been killed for serving mate lukewarm. Drinking bitter mate like the gauchos is masculine; tempering its strength with sugar or herbs is vaguely inauthentic, for those who can't handle the "real deal." To run out of yerba is a sexual reference; if there's none left, a hypothetical couple deciding whether they want to drink mate or get it on now only have one option.
The Argentine military dictatorship of the 1970s prohibited workers in some industries from drinking mate on the job, fearing that its power to bring people together would facilitate workers organizing. When a girl takes a new boyfriend to her parents' house, suspicious parents serve him especially hot mate to try to keep his hands busy and away from their daughter. And because parents don't offer it to children due to its bitter taste and stimulative properties, Argentines consider the first time a child drinks mate home alone as a noteworthy rite of passage.
As their country has acquired a more cosmopolitan character, many Argentines attach less significance to the intricate rituals that characterize mate in its former provincial context. For example, most Argentines today would not interpret receiving mate with lemon balm as a symbol of the server's sadness or distress, as Coluccio writes it once meant. However, many widely observed customs and symbols concerning mate still exist, and mate's definition is clear. None of the Argentines I interviewed abroad knew that mate is now sold in the United States, and none of them considered Guayakí's bottles or cans to be authentic types of mate.
Amid a series of interviews I conducted with strangers in town, I spoke with Alejandro Benitez, a tourist in his 20s from Buenos Aires, who spit out the sample of the mate energy shot I offered him. He defined mate like my other sources.
"Mate" he says, "has three basic elements: the mate [receptacle], yerba and bombilla." To Benitez, Guayakí's single-use bottles and cans are "very individualistic," and he adds an important reminder: "Mate is shared."
On the porch one afternoon, I discuss American mate with Vivi's visiting relatives. "Those have nothing to do with what mate is," says Fernando Pitrelli, Vivi's brother, referring to some printout labels of Guayakí's bottles and cans. "Mate isn't drunk from a bottle; you don't get it from a can."
"It's all for business," he says. "They're losing out on what mate is, what mate means to us."
"What they've got wrong is the definition," says Nahir Pitrelli, 21, Fernando's daughter. She points to the printout labels of Guayakí's cans, featuring Argentine-styled people drinking mate from gourds. "If you look closely in the drawing, that's mate how we drink it here, but they sell it to you in a can—I mean, nada que ver."
Nahir continues, stopping short of vilifying the American palate. "If [Americans] like them, they should drink them," she says. "It's just mediocre."
However, my sources don't see Americans' interpretations of their infusion as necessarily sacrilegious. As Fernando puts it, "What people do with their culo is up to them."
"It's all good," says Sergio Rojel, an elderly campesino I spoke with in town, of mate in bottles and cans. Though wearing the loose bombacha pants and beret characteristic of gauchos, he adds that "we're already losing traditional Argentine culture here."
Some were less enthusiastic. "I'm not offended, but they're deceiving people," says Iris Ramirez, Benitez's partner.
Indeed, most Argentines I interview don't express grudges against Guayakí; in fact, in the progressive area where I stay, some appreciate the idea of organic yerba. (Others, in Ramirez's words, regard Guayakí's organic, fair-trade and shade-grown certifications as "marketing.") They acknowledge that cultural objects take new forms when they cross borders, and that isn't inherently negative.
"We drink mate," says Ricardo "El Colo" Romero. "But one of the most popular types of music here is rock."
It should be noted that Guayakí is well aware of mate's significance in the Southern Cone; Alex Pryor, a founding member, is from Buenos Aires. (Karr, the other founding member, is from the South Bay; the two met at college in San Luis Obispo.) Pryor writes over email that he feels "honored by the American culture who embraces with respect and admiration the cultural and health attributes" of yerba mate. And though only 20 percent of Guayakí's sales consist of loose-leaf, from which traditional forms of mate are made, the company does pay homage to mate's history and ceremony on its website.
When I read Karr some quotes from my Argentine sources reacting to Guayakí's bottles and cans, he pauses.
"A-ha . . . Um, yeah, I could understand how they would say that," he says.
Karr has likely been faced with this question before. "We're trying to bring yerba mate culture to the world. And so for us, that means you have to make it available to different lifestyles," he says. "We're doing everything as authentically as we possibly can," he adds, mentioning Guayakí's rainforest-protection efforts and relationships with indigenous mate farmers.
"Just because we brew it and package it in the bottles and cans so that more people can have access to it—because that's the way they drink things—fine," Karr says. "Not everyone has to feel great about it."
Back in Argentina, I'd wanted to know on what terms drinking mate is OK; where do Argentines place the limits of its authenticity? At Vivi's dinner table, I ask if it's all right that gringos drink mate traditionally outside of the Southern Cone.
"Si!" responds my host family in chorus. "It's great!" Romero says.
"Drinking mate isn't anyone's birthright; to drink mate is to share," repeats Vivi. "It's fine that gringos drink mate, but let's make it mate, not those clown things."