From convenience stores to hip local restaurants, a caffeinated South American infusion is taking over Richmond’s taste buds. If you don’t know what yerba mate is all about, now’s the time to find out.
Yerba mate has been around for hundreds of years, but it’s only in the very recent past that the greatness of this heavily caffeinated South American tea has reached popular awareness here in Richmond.
In our fast-moving modern society, a lot of us reach for caffeinated drinks to keep going. But when you stop by the 7-11 looking for a quick boost on a weekday afternoon, the typical options aren’t always that appealing. Diet sodas usually don’t strike the right flavor balance, while regular sodas are full of heavy, sugary corn syrup. Energy drinks are highly acidic, and their frequent use of mysterious chemicals can be off-putting. Coffee has an appealing flavor for many people, but its diuretic side effects offer a significant downside.
But in many convenience stores around Richmond, you can find a bright alternative alongside the Tazo teas — a drink known as yerba mate. It initially appealed to me as a non-carbonated tea variety that featured 160 mg of caffeine per can, and at first sip, I was hooked. It drinks smooth like a tea, doesn’t hurt my stomach like coffee, and offers every bit the kick of a Red Bull. For caffeine addicts, it seems almost too good to be true.
While Americans might only have encountered Yerba mate in recent years through the canned and bottled versions created and sold by California beverage company Guayaki, Yerba mate (pronounced “mah-tay”) is actually a plant with origins in the central region of South America, centered in what is now Paraguay. The drink made from it, known generically as mate, is made by infusing the leaves of the yerba mate plant in water — much like the way tea is made. The resulting drink is packed with vitamins and minerals, and contains more antioxidants than green tea. Yerba mate is rich in phenolic compounds that decrease the damaging effects of cholesterol, and it has even been shown in studies to help kill off colon cancer cells.
Richmond is a city that loves its food, and when it comes to intriguing new flavors, our citizens keep their ears to the streets. Therefore, it didn’t take long for a drink with a fast-growing cult following to start showing up in Richmond’s hip dining establishments. Jackson Ward eatery Cobra Cabana’s bar menu features a Yerba mate cocktail called “Honky In Kingston.”
“Originally before they had energy drinks, this was your more organic vodka Red Bull,” says Cobra Cabana co-owner Herbie Abernathy. Of their hot take on the drink, Abernathy tells us, “My business partner lives up in new York, and he makes these with a recipe that came straight from Berlin. This recipe comes from Club Mate — its a brand that they’ve been using over there for years. And what they do in bars and clubs is they drink the top off the bottle. Two big gulps or sips, then they pour overtop any spirit you want — mostly vodka.”
For Cobra Cabana, keeping a steady supply of White Label Yerba Mate soda, a Brooklyn-based yerba mate beverage, is of paramount importance. “They don’t sell this everywhere,” said Abernathy, holding up a bottle of Club Mate. “For a long time, Josh, my partner, would drive up to Brooklyn, fill up his truck with them, and bring them back. Until last year, the only places you could get this drink in the United States were here in Richmond at Cobra Cabana, down in Miami, or in Brooklyn.”
For Abernathy, the caffeinated kick of yerba mate was a big part of the appeal. “I needed an alternative to coffee,” he said. “It’s way better than an energy drink, and it will fucking jazz you up. This drink is really popular amongst the DJ and club scene in Europe, and even though I don’t really party anymore, I drink this a lot if I have a whole day’s worth of shit to do.”
Meanwhile, outside downtown, yerba mate has been making inroads into campus life at the city’s more suburban colleges. At the University of Richmond, student ambassadors pass cans out on campus, and campus clubs can request free supplies of Yerba mate for their meetings. “Yerba mate’s been a huge thing pretty much ever since I started at the University of Richmond,” says U of R sophomore Kaitlin Edwardson. ” They sell out at the convenience store all the time because so many people always buy them. It’s like oxygen on this campus; it’s so bizarre. They sell Red Bull and Monster [Energy Drink] here, but everyone is always carrying around Yerba. People basically need them to function.”
It’s not just a U of R thing, either; 7-11s around the city struggle to stay stocked with the beverage, and are constantly out of mint flavors in particular. At a time when some people are looking for ways to reduce their consumption of artificial flavors and chemical-based substances, Yerba mate provides a healthier approach to revitalization and energy re-uptake.
Maybe that’s a big part of the appeal, or maybe it’s just that it’s delicious. The mint flavor is a good place to start, but the revel berry seems to be the real crowd favorite. If you haven’t tried yerba mate yet, our advice is to grab one and find out for yourself why this drink is quietly becoming a Richmond staple.