Today Orlando — tomorrow the world!
On my latest trip to Florida, I scheduled a site visit and an interview with the country’s newest yerba mate entrepreneur. John Guerra is the self-described “owner and janitor” of the Yerba Yerba Cafe and Workshop. He has focused his considerable exuberance on creating an exciting new yerba mate business in Orlando and his goal is to make the yerba mate experience more user friendly for the U.S. market. By the time I left, I had concluded — If you could make money by selling enthusiasm and innovation, John was destined to become a millionaire.
It all started with John Guerra’s brother, Paul, one of Florida’s quintessential “surfer dudes.” As a surfer, Paul’s need for energy was supported by a constant diet of the popular Red Bull energy drink. Then he was introduced to yerba mate. The celebrated South American infusion found a new believer in Paul and he switched to yerba mate with gusto.
John was intrigued by his older brother’s excitement and decided to try yerba mate for himself. Now there were two young men who couldn’t contain their enthusiasm. They told all of their friends and family and it didn’t take long for the two brothers and their father, Steve, to start developing a business plan. John says his father serves as the “suit” in their cottage enterprise, keeping the business fiscally responsible.
They located a family farm in Argentina that could produce a high quality yerba mate for them to “private label” with their new brand name — Yerba Yerba. The loose tea product was packaged in “leaf only” (sin palo) and “whole plant” (con palo). For their modest product launch, they did all of their own packaging and shipping from a small industrial office/warehouse just outside of Orlando. Yerba Yerba was off and running.
The ever-practical Steve kept warning them the U.S. market was never going to buy in to the traditional South American custom of sipping yerba mate from a gourd through a bombilla. These discussions evolved into a core Yerba Yerba mission of making yerba mate more user friendly.
They reasoned the messy clean up of yerba mate could be eliminated if they took the popular tea bag concept a step further. The answer was an oversized Yerba Yerba tea bag. Most yerba mate tea bags hold 1.5 to 3 grams of yerba. Yerba Yerba offers jumbo 6 and 12 gram bags.
The giant sized tea bags can be used in several ways. Put one in a coffee cup and fill and refill the cup with hot water until the yerba mate becomes lavado (or “washed out”). This repetitive refilling procedure is similar to the way South Americans sip for hours from their gourd — but without the lengthy preparation ritual and the messy clean up afterwards.
You can also put a bag in a pitcher or a large sport drink bottle and fill it with cold water to make terere, a cold yerba mate similar to iced tea. The container can be topped off or refilled for multiple uses from the same bag. John says his customers are coming up with new uses for the jumbo sized bags all the time.
One creative use of the giant tea bags is to make mate cocido, or brewed mate, in an automatic drip coffee maker. It’s pre-measured in a way that simplifies the brewing process and there is no messy cleanup. Here is how I suggest you do it:
1. Pour the desired amount of cool water into the reservoir of the coffee maker.
2. Place the tea bag in the bottom of the carafe and soak with cool water.
3. IMPORTANT: Let the tea bag steep for three minutes or more in the cool water.
The 6 gram bag is perfect for about 4 cups of mate cocido. This should yield about three 11 ounce mugs of yerba mate. The 12 gram bag is just about right for an 8 to 10 cup coffee maker. You could adjust the strength in two ways: Steep the bags in the cool water less time to make it weaker — more time to make it stronger, or use more than one bag to make it a lot stronger.
John talks passionately about his business and yerba mate. “When people say: ‘tell me about mate,’ I could go on and on and on…” he says. But, he is trying to be more passive these days, saying “I try to hold back on it, because it sounds like an infomercial.” John also says he receives more satisfaction from his new approach: “Give them the cup. Let the people drink it. Then, they will tell you why it’s great.”
Armed with new innovative brewing methods and the spirit of Johnny Appleseed, Guerra claims a retail operation had to follow. This was the birth of their new Yerba Yerba Cafe and Workshop. The distinctive black and yellow “mate bar” makes a miniscule footprint measuring only about 12 feet by 20 feet — including the kitchen and restroom. A note to sippers: It may be small, but it does have Wi-Fi.
The little mate bar sells tea bags and loose yerba. You can also buy a freshly brewed cup of yerba mate, either hot or cold, for only one dollar. The limited menu offers variations as unique as the rest of the Yerba Yerba concept. It was the first time I ever tried Tabasco flavored yerba mate for example — and I liked it too. John now has a regular clientele and boasts of converting plenty of former coffee and Red Bull drinkers to the much healthier alternative.
The fledgling brand is now on a quest to put Yerba Yerba into as many local establishments as possible. I had lunch at one such local eatery — The Dandelion Cafe. The waitress took great pride in telling me the yerba mate they served was a “high quality, locally branded, organic product.”