W estern Sonoma County residents may have noticed a new mural going up in the town of Sebastopol. Arched around the doorways of a warehouse off Highway 12—one of those slated for eventual tear-down and massive reconstruction, according to the controversial northeast plan for re-developing downtown Sebastopol—the newly added rainforest scene arches gracefully around the entrance to Guayakí Yerba Mate, which will soon boast the North Bay's first exclusively maté bar. Yerba maté, a hot drink made from dried leaves and twigs of a holly plant native to subtropical South America, has a slight caffeine kick and is the preferred social beverage of that part of the world, kind of a natural Starbucks of the jungle.
Guayakí Yerba Mate, a company created by Alex Pryor and David Karr as their senior project at Cal Poly back in 1996, boasts organic, fair-trade, shade-grown yerba maté. CEO Chris Mann meets with me at the processing plant, which is located in the warehouse behind the planned maté bar, and gives me a tour that proves to be a lesson in history and horticulture as much as it is on the benefits of cultivating a taste for what many consider to be one of the healthiest teas on the market.
I've been a casual maté drinker for about 13 years, ever since a beloved roommate came back from a surf trip to Argentina with a maté habit so intense he never went anywhere without his gourd (the traditional drinking receptacle, often shared among friends), bombilla (a metal straw also traditional to the drink), a bag of maté and a thermos of hot water. His influence has never worn off, though I usually just brew mine like the American isolationist I am—alone and in a cup.
As Mann and I stroll though the Guayakí compound, past the tasting room and down into the storage facility that houses, literally, tons of organic maté, he enlightens me regarding the history of maté and why, by buying Guayakí products, I am not just keeping myself off coffee for one more day but am inadvertently participating in the successful reforestation of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay.
Yerba maté is harvested from a relatively small tree by rainforest standards. The maté tree reaches only 70 to 80 feet and grows under the canopy of the rainforest. This is what it means to be "shade-grown." Mann tells me that in South America, where maté is considered a staple of daily life, there are over 400 different brands of it, and almost all is sun-grown. When the Jesuits came to Paraguay, they took it upon themselves to oversee all maté production and use it for commerce on their own behalf. Rainforests were clear-cut, and maté was grown in the sun. The land could now be fenced, production increased and the workers properly oppressed.
The time of the Jesuits may have passed, but because more and more farmers are turning out of desperation to clear-cutting their land to run cattle or grow soy, Guayakí has stepped in to provide a vital economic driver for native farmers and indigenous peoples to use in returning to shade-grown maté for commerce. Cofounder Alex Pryor, a native of Argentina, has returned to South America, where he is able to monitor their projects directly and ensure that rather than just "giving and leaving" as Mann puts it, Guayakí is able to make a lasting difference in both the quality of the lives of the indigenous peoples and the preservation of the continent's most precious world resource, the rainforests.
I've been aware of yerba maté's medicinal and energizing properties for a long time, but until now I never stopped to consider the difference that I, as a consumer, could make by such a seemingly simple decision as what tea to drink. According to Guayakí statistics, if I drink two cups of its maté per day, I will be protecting an acre of rainforest for a year. This is a good feeling, very much in contrast with my usual seemingly inevitable participation in the earth's decay.
I leave the Guayakí warehouse pleased that I have managed, by chance and circumstance, to stumble on to such a sustainable habit so many years ago, when I would share a gourd of maté with my roommate with no thought of rainforests or carbon footprints, simply enjoying the camaraderie of the moment.
For more information or to order some Guayakí Yerba Mate, go to www.Guayakí.com.