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I had no idea how big this story was going to be.
Guayaki yerba mate (pronounced mah-tay) is a “high energy infusion made from the naturally caffeinated and nourishing leaves of the celebrated South American rainforest holly tree,” as stated on all of Guayaki’s products.
Going into this story, I expected to hear a short pitch on the brand and nothing more. Little did I know, this company, this drink, had a whole culture behind it. And so, I watched the story unfold.
Cal Poly alumnus Jose Sanchez is the cebador for Guayaki, which he describes as the person responsible for “nurturing the community in which we live in by sharing mate.” Cebadors serve mate to others and follow a number of distinct practices in doing so.
I knew the moment we sat down that it wasn’t going to be a typical interview. Following his duty as a cebador, Sanchez had brought yerba mate to share as we talked because traditionally, mate opens up conversation.
“This is our commemorative tang,” Sanchez said. “It is biodynamic, so it’s the most organic, harmonious mate you can find. And we work with the land and seasons to have the most premium mate.”
According to Sanchez, there are many different taste preferences for mate, depending on where you are in Argentina. Guayaki’s mate is unique because it contains the stems of the plant. The stems hold antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, Sanchez said.
He began preparing the mate.
“The custom and tradition of mate is to share it with your friends,” Sanchez said. “And the person that has the mate is the cebador, which in this case would be myself. And my job is to prepare it, make sure that the water is flowing, make sure the stems aren’t coming out and make sure that the flavor is coming out.”
As we talked, we continued to share the mate, prompting architectural engineering junior Shea Jordan to approach us. He was coincidentally drinking mate as well. He said he had lived in Argentina most of his life.
Yerba mate was a symbol of friendship, hospitality and community. The symbolism emerged when the Spanish came to South America and struggled with the communication barrier between themselves and the indigenous peoples. It’s how you build trust in Argentina because everyone drinks from the same gourd, Sanchez said.
“And our spirit, our company culture is to bring that to the communities we share mate in,” Sanchez said.
Agricultural and environmental plant sciences freshman William Samson lived in Argentina for 14 years of his life.
“My earliest memories in Argentina (are of) my stepfather, (who) was always drinking mate,” Samson said. “I would always admire it, because in Argentina they’re covered with silver usually. They’re really pretty gourds. Seeing the steam come off of the herb, maybe in a chilly night, it just was really something that I can vividly look back at. And mate seemed to make him happy.”
Sanchez explained there is a certain etiquette when drinking mate. You don’t say thank you when someone passes you the gourd, nor when you pass it back to the cebador. You only say thank you once you’re done drinking. And when you pass the mate, the bombilla (the traditional straw/filter), needs to be facing the other person.
“Mate was kind of like the bonding point all the time,” Jordan said. “You’ll notice most people in Argentina, from drinking so much mate, have a lot of crease lines on their mouth from pinching the straw.”
Cal Poly alumni Alex Pryor (from Argentina) and David Karr founded Guayaki as a senior project. They would share yerba mate in class and spread the word about it to their classmates.
Sanchez and National Events & Education Cebador Don Miguel, another Cal Poly alumnus, will be representing Yerba Mate as the Grand Marshals of Cal Poly’s Open House this year.
“Grand Marshal is just the people that are at the front of the parade. They marshal and lead the parade,” Sanchez said.
Sanchez and the rest of Guayaki hope to build bridges with Cal Poly, he said.
They are happy to represent Guayaki and honored to be of service to the Cal Poly students, Sanchez said in a statement from Guayaki.
“We look forward to supporting the students further as they innovate and become pioneers for the service and betterment of future generations,” the statement read.
The holly plant mate comes from is grown in the shade. Guayaki does reforestation projects to help better the environment while growing the plant, which also creates jobs for the locals, Sanchez said.
“So in a way, the more mate we import, the more we’re able to protect. And our goal is to have over 200,000 acres by 2020,” Sanchez said. “There’s a direct connection to the rainforest and the impact we’re having.”
Not only are Guayaki products good for the environment, they taste good as well. They sell loose-leaf mate, eight different bottled flavors, six different canned flavors (three of which are carbonated) and also sell yerba mate shots, Sanchez said.
In America, many people drink it as a substitute for coffee.
“People are so used to the coffee jolt, the Red Bull kick, that many times (they think), ‘Oh, I didn’t feel anything.’ But then six hours later they’re still studying, still able to work out,” Sanchez said.
Yerba mate can give a sustained yet subtle energy with no jitters or crash, as opposed to what people might experience with coffee, he said.
“Coffee is just caffeine straight to the nervous system; that’s not balanced,” Sanchez said. “Mate is enriched with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants (and) amino acids that nourish your whole system. So it’s nourishing your whole body. And it’s an adaptogenic plant, so for different people, it adapts to that individual’s needs.”
He said for some, it nourishes their digestive system’ for others, it gives them a focused energy or can just relaxes them. It all depends on the person and what they need to balance out their system.
“It’s an antidepressant for many people, which is what really spoke to me in a time when I needed a little pep in my step,” Sanchez said. “Mate really came to me and helped me see the brighter side of life and served me well in my life. And our motto is ‘come to life,’ so that really definitely spoke to me.”
Yerba mate would speak to a lot of Cal Poly students not only because it’s good for studying and working out, but also mate is big in surfing, rock climbing and other outdoorsy events, Sanchez said. It’s a cardiovascular dilator that opens up the blood vessels and allows for more oxygen to flow, he said.
It can be found in local cafes as well as grocery stores like New Frontiers, Fresh and Easy, Vons and Ralph’s. But Sanchez and the rest of Guayaki would love to see their mate served on campus.
“As a campus that gave birth to the company, I think that it’s definitely important to have our presence be strong here, and dare I say a flagship account for other campuses,” said Sanchez.
In Argentina, everyone has their own gourd. You can go to a park and see circles of people drinking mate, he said.
“It would be amazing one day to see a mate circle on Dexter lawn and have somebody making a gourd go around in a circle. It’s a beautiful culture and a beautiful thing to share,” Sanchez said.
Back in Argentina, Samson used to hang out in a circle with his friends by the riverside, play instruments and drink mate, he said.
“College students drink it every day when they’re doing homework or in group study sessions. And if you’re not in school, you’re still drinking mate because it’s just one of those customs that help people kind of pass the day,” Samson said.
Bottles of Guayaki’s yerba mate used to be on campus, but due to limitations imposed by a contract between Cal Poly and Coca Cola, they had to take it off the shelves, he said.
Director of Campus Dining Mike Thornton says Cal Poly signed a contract with Coke for exclusive pouring rights.
“You essentially agree to pour all Coke products,” said Thornton. “That’s their teas, anything that they own in a beverage (is) what you’re supposed to be pouring. And then the ones we don’t need to pour are things they don’t serve.”
Campus dining isn’t able to sell the bottled and canned Guayaki because Coke serves products already in the organic, fair-trade tea category, Thornton said.
Coke, however, doesn’t have loose-leaf or brewed tea.
“It’s just the bottled beverage that we can’t offer,” Jenna Bailey, operations manager for campus dining, said.
Julian’s has carried Guayaki brewed yerba mate for years, Bailey said. It is able to sell the tea as a hot beverage, since Coke doesn’t offer any similar products. Instead, it sells loose-leaf yerba mate at Campus Market.
After the Coke contract ends, a panel of representatives from all over campus will determine what the new contract entails. Associated Students Inc. (ASI) members will be included in the decision process, Thornton said.
Samson shared mate with Sanchez and spoke about bringing the mate culture and Guayaki to campus. They hope this awareness will spark interest in students who can hopefully influence the panel.
“My initial goal is to host a mate party in Fremont Hall, which is one of the red bricks here on campus. I received five pounds of traditional leaf from Guayaki and the plan is to share that with as many people as possible,” Samson said.
Thornton was unsure of when the Coke contract was up, but Guayaki hopes that students will show enough interest for more of their products to be allowed on the next contract.
“It starts with one person,” Samson said. “You share one gourd, maybe they like it, maybe they don’t. But if they like it, they will share it with another person. And it’s just kind of like a spider web. And that’s how things start, you know word of mouth or by sharing experiences, you never know what could happen.”
By the end of my two-hour talk with Sanchez, the mate had been finished, and a story, a culture and a drink laid before me.