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Move Over Coffee:
Brazilian Mate is Making Waves

By Alexis Rubinstein

In our March issue, we explored the differences between the Brazilian and Argentine versions. In this article, we highlight Brazil and its love for “the other green tea.” Stay tuned next month for our mate farm survey and the next installment of this series.

I knew very little about mate, other than it was a traditional South American drink. I also knew very little about Brazil. I imagined sprawling coffee estates outside of the Amazon rainforest (please take note: coffee is produced no where near the Amazon!) So when I learned I would be traveling to Brazil to learn more about mate (known locally as yerba-mate) and the culture it encompasses, I was both curious and intrigued.

Abimate, a partner of Apex Brazil, is an organization that helps local companies with logistical support, market insight and marketing tools. Their goal is for mate to be as widely consumed internationally as it is locally, and for the culture to be embraced and understood. Heraldo Secco Junior would be our “tour guide” for the trip, showing us everything from mate fields to processing facilities, warehouses, packaging operations and corporate headquarters. Not to mention the personal highlight of my trip, a mate festival, where I was able to fully understand the impact this beverage has on the Brazilian people.

My first experience with mate was driving into the small town of Ilopolis, where Heraldo pulled the car over to show me the mate trees growing “wild” on the side of the road. For me, this was a first. Traveling to origin for the tea and coffee industries, I have become accustomed to visiting fields, with strategically placed rows of bushes or trees, forming a sea of manicured crop. To see this “wild mate” reinforced the connection between the Brazilians and their beloved mate trees. These trees call Brazil home, and Brazil welcomes them with open arms.

Our next stop would be a mate farm, where I would learn about the production of the beverage and how it makes its way from the branch of a tree to my cup.

The manufacturing process of the yerba-mate takes two very different parts: the cycle of the “cancheamento” (i.e. crunch or crush) and the cycle of the industrialization. In the “Cancheamento” cycle there is a step called Sapeco. Processing of the harvested leaves starts in an inclined and rotating metal cylinder, similar to a coffee-drying drum. Temperatures average 400ºC and the leaves are scorched, not burned, which stops degradation. This happens immediately after the harvest and practically removes all humidity.

Desired moisture levels typically reached using a fluid bed dryer, after which the leaves and stems are passed through a series of sieves, fans filters and power collectors that separate and collect according to particle size.

The final step of the Cancheamento phase is the crushing of the leaves and stem in a machine that is best described as similar to a series of trip hammers that pound the product into a powder. Particle size is regulated by passage time through the machine. Product emerging from the machine is separated by particle size. Leaf and stem are also separated at this stage.

Blends are composed of product from different regions, different harvest times, different particle sizes and different mixtures of leaf and stem. This together with packaging decisions is the industrialization phase.

Some of the mate we tried was much more fine, consisting mostly of the powder which falls to the bottom of the sieves, while other preparations require more consistency, so stems and leaves are added. Before the flavoring (if any) is added and before the packing and sealing process, some yerba-mate is toasted in different degrees and for varying times, according the need and taste profile. The “Laranjeiras” tea is toasted for more time than the “Chá das 5” tea. The compositions of “Laranjeiras” and “Chá das 5” are almost 100% leaves.

Regardless of the “ratio” of the mate you see in Brazil, it is most likely consumed in only one way...the Chimarrão.

“Chimarrão,” a gourd that is used to drink the mate is the classical way this beverage is consumed in South America. The mate is portioned on top of the Chimarrão, hot water is poured over and a bombilla (or metal straw) is inserted to sip through. For the germaphobes of the world, traditional mate imbibing might take some getting used to, as this is thought to be a social event, where a group of people pass around the Chimarrão and take turns sipping until the mate runs out and needs to be refilled. I learned this the hard way when I took a sip of the Chimarrão, and in an effort to show my American generosity, passed it on to the next folk. “You must sip until it is finished,” Heraldo informed me, showing me that when the mate is done, you will hear an odd sound from the Chimarrão, indicating you need to refill.

After a few factory tours of some of the largest suppliers of mate throughout South America, Vier Industria and Rei Verde, to name a few (see next article in this series for more information), I sat down with Heraldo to become more aquainted with the product. In Brazil, there are two main forms of mate: the green, natural mate and the yellow, toasted mate. Their difference is exactly what is implied, the yellow mate is simply green mate leaves that have been “toasted” to bring out different flavors.

For those who just can’t get used to sucking a hot water infusion through a straw, Brazil is also widely known for Tereré. Tereré is created when you infuse the yerba mate herb with cold water, rather than hot water. Generally, this beverage is consumed in a larger vessel than the traditional Chimarrão. In some parts of Brazil it is popular to add other flavors to mate, both traditional mate and Tereré. Everything from camomile to mint, lime to pineapple juice have found their way through a bombilla every now and then. Some of these ingredients are added to enhance flavor, while others are added for medicinal purposes.

Relatively new to the Brazilian market (in comparison to the centuries old mate-drinking tradition) are the herb’s ready-to-drink offerings. According to Heraldo, these are gaining in popularity for the younger generations, while the rest of the Brazilian culture still embraces the mate tradition.

To see this RTD trend in full effect, Heraldo took us to the Laranjeiras factory and store. Laranjeiras is one of the newest producers of bottled mate beverages in South America. Currently, their line, Xima, consists of both green and yellow “iced” mate, which is a cold, refreshing, slightly carbonated version of the mate one drinks out of the gourd. If I wanted to compare it to anything I’ve ever tried, I couldn’t. Its taste was truly unique, and while qualities of an iced tea were identifiable, the taste was something alien to my palate...and increasingly addicting.

While on the topic of mate versus tea, Heraldo told me the very interesting fact that some beverage companies actually substitute mate for green tea in energy products, ready to drink offerings and even “green tea” based selections. “It’s something very few people know, however they get away with it because so few people actually read the label,” Heraldo said. To most people, the tastes and color are too similar to even notice.

To prove this point, Heraldo set up a blind taste test. In one cup he brewed green tea, the other mate. What if I can’t tell the difference, I wondered. What will they think of me as the Editor of Tea & Coffee Trade Journal? Will I offend him if I mistake the Brazilian gem for the widely known and consumed green tea?

To his point, the tastes are extremely similar. Both have “earthy” qualities to them and nearly identical appearances. The mate, however had more of an enhanced flavor profile. More depth and strength per sip versus the green tea. By the smile on Heraldo’s face, I could tell not only was I correct in my identification, but also impressing him with my observation.

While coffee may be the powerhouse of Brazil, it is certainly not the only crop close to its heart. Mate is on the verge of making its breakthrough in the international market, and with the help and generosity of Heraldo, Abimate, Apex and all the families and employees of the farms we visited, the tea community will soon embrace its tradition, culture and distinctive place on the market.

Tea & Coffee - April, 2010
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