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Bottling the Tradition 

In which our reporter travels to Argentina and discovers that when it comes to mate, Americans are doing it all wrong

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'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.

click to enlarge JAY SCHERF
  • Jay Scherf

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.

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