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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

Page 3 of 3

"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."

click to enlarge ACCESSORIES Mario Pareguetti, a mate gourd vendor in the street fair. - JAY SCHERF
  • Jay Scherf
  • ACCESSORIES Mario Pareguetti, a mate gourd vendor in the street fair.

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."

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