One of my readers recently asked how to choose a brand of yerba mate. Good question! For many producers and consumers alike, yerba mate is a fungible good; that is, they regard it as a commodity — one brand is the same as any other brand — but to the connoisseur, this line of thinking is sacrilege!
If you want the assurance that you are receiving all of theÂ flavor and purported health benefits that yerba mate has to offer, you should have some tools to compare and evaluate brands. Here are a few guidelines to help you make your own informed decisions. You will still have to experiment with several brands to be able to recognize the differences, but now you will have a basis for your choice.Â
I have used literally dozens of brands and some are pretty bad. You may be asking “what is bad?” I hope to answer by telling you “what is good!” Some criteria can be dismissed as personal preference, but there are true measurements of quality and grading that can be applied to any yerba.
Purists will insist on using the traditional gourd and bombilla, but in the U.S., most people are consuming their yerba mate brewed as a tea. This means that they are using tea bags, a French press or a coffee maker to brew their infusion. The following tests will apply to most methods of preparation. Your personal preference will be the final test.
Composition –Â Whether you are using loose yerba in a gourd, French press or coffee maker, you will be concerned about the mix of the four main elements of yerba: leaf, stem, dust and additives — although I am not going to discuss added herbs and flavorings.Â I should also mention that an inferior brand may use “fillers” that have no nutritional value.
The leaf is where the flavor and nutrients are, but the stems play a significant role too. If the leaves are finely cut, the stems will help keep small particles from clogging your bombilla. Stems will also allow water to flow through your coffee filter more easily too. The larger cut of some whole leaf brands allow water to flow just as efficiently. The nutrients are in the leaves and the finer the leaves are cut, the more the nutrients are released into the infusion. The super fine cut of the Brazilian chimarrao style erva mate is fine for a large gourd full of creamy mate, but it does not work well in a coffee maker.
No matter what the blend ratio is, there will be some powder (or dust). This is normal and nothing to be concerned about. Too much powder however, is a sign of inferior yerba and will quickly become a big problem. When it gets wet, it turns to mud! The mud willÂ inhibit water flow throughÂ some types ofÂ French presses and will likely cause an overflow in the basket of your coffee maker. The Brazilian chimarrao hasÂ many characteristics of powder.
Color — In the finest hotels throughout South America, I have ordered “mate cocido”Â (brewed mate) and the cup of mate I was served consistently had the same greenish-amber color.Â When sampling mate at the plantations in South America, guess what? It was the same color. In evaluating the colorÂ of brewed mate, I remember that color as the color standard.
You can see that same color for yourself by brewing your mate with a tea bag and letting it steep for about five minutes in a white or a clearÂ cup. This is as close to a benchmark as you can get because each tea bag is pre-measured. Inferior yerba will appear too yellow andÂ yerba that has not been properly seasoned will be a dark, emerald green color — not the greenish-amber color you are looking for. Trust me –Â if it’s dark green — it’s gross!
AlthoughÂ I have described theÂ colorÂ as a standard, to manyÂ connoisseurs it is a little weak. Maybe you like your mate stronger. When sipped from a gourd, it’s much stronger of course, but even in a cup, some folks will prefer to let it steep longer. I also know of fans who will use two tea bags, justÂ to make it stronger. Stronger mate will have a much darker color, but it should still be that distinctive greenish-amber.
There is much more to learn about comparing yerba. I’ll share more inÂ the future.
(To be continued.)