During college, I all but refused to drink coffee. The only exception I made was during finals week when I was pushing myself writing papers and taking exams. The rest of the year, I could spring out of bed as soon as my alarm went off, and I didn’t see the need for coffee.
Philosophically, I wanted to make sure I was using caffeine as a tool rather than a crutch. I figured that I’d get more out of my caffeine intake if I drank it only a few times a year. I’d consume it intensely during finals week and then suffer a mild headache for a day or two during winter break as I weaned myself back off.
I remember watching friends of mine at 18, 19, 20 years old nursing giant Starbucks cups every morning, and I thought it was lame to have what I thought at the time was a crippling addiction. Yes, it’s definitely a physiological addiction that I now share with my former classmates, but I find it a bit less crippling in hindsight.
Discovering Yerba Maté in South America
I maintained my “no caffeine” discipline until my second stint living in Latin America. In 2007, I spent 6 months in Santiago, Chile, and came back with a habit for the South American traditional tea, Yerba Maté. It wasn’t until I started drinking Maté that I finally succumbed to a caffeine habit. When I came back to the US, I had a few friends that I would drink Maté with who had also lived in South America, so I had the right social reinforcement to reinforce the behavior. I would get up in the morning, pack the Maté gourd with about an ounce of tea, wait for the water to boil, and then get to drinking it. I’d go through 2-3 32 oz thermoses of hot water, and 2-3 oz of tea every day.
And as I drank Maté more and more, I noticed that my memory and recall were increasing dramatically. My ability to remember and apply the research I was doing at the time for my senior honors thesis improved dramatically on the Maté. It was like somebody lent me 20 extra IQ points every time I brewed the tea.
Using the mental performance as a justification, I started letting Yerba Maté become a part of my life and my routine, and I got a bit obsessed about why I felt so much better drinking it than I ever did drinking coffee. I wanted to know why it was so much more effective. Turns out there are a series of ingredients in Maté that coffee just doesn’t have, including three different types of caffeines.
Nerdy Stuff: The Xanthine Stimulants
Caffeine belongs to a chemical subset of xanthines, organic chemical stimulants. There are three major sources of xanthines in a typical Western diet: coffee, tea, and chocolate.
- Coffee has caffeine. Turns out, all caffeine does is keep you awake. It doesn’t actually help you think more clearly or anything of note. But if you need to feel awake, it will do the trick.
- Chocolate has theobromine. Theobromine is the awesome stuff in chocolate that makes you feel somewhat euphoric after you eat some. It’s also a stimulant, and increases heart rate, but isn’t as addictive as caffeine, nor is it quite as extreme on your adrenal system.
- Tea has theophylline. Theophylline is a strong mental stimulant that occurs in most teas, and does good things for your brain and ability to focus. Again, not as hard on your adrenal system.
The Unholy Stimulant Trinity
All three of those xanthines occur naturally in Yerba Maté. I like to say that it contains the unholy trinity of stimulants. One of the things that I noticed after drinking Maté for a while was that I never got jittery like I would when I drank too much coffee. If you drank too much Maté, you’d get amped up, but you could eat some carbs or drink a little red wine to tone it down pretty quickly. Maté made it really easy to control and optimize my physical and mental state. Plus, I could drink it all night while I was writing, and as soon as I was ready to sleep, it didn’t keep me awake.
Part of the reason that you don’t get jittery on the stuff is because it contains 15 amino acids and 24 vitamins and minerals. It’s nutritious, as far as stimulants go, which I feel like helps balance the stimulants out as they metabolize. The real money shot is that Maté contains significant levels of magnesium, which relaxes your muscle tissue. So while the xanthines are at work spiking your mind’s potential, and giving you pleasant feeling of dark-chocolate euphoria, the magnesium is working to relax your muscle tissue, driving stress from your body. You get the best of both worlds: an alert mind, as well as a relaxed body.
Yes. They do call Maté a superfood.
Today, I still make a big batch of Maté every morning. I stopped using my gourd a few years back because I got a fancy consulting job where I had to wear slacks and stuff every day, and they didn’t appreciate the international flavor of drinking Maté straight out of a gourd in the office. I started making it in a French Press and pouring in a big thermos that could just as easy hold coffee.
Today, I’ll fill the thermos with Maté and then add a tablespoon or two of local honey. It lasts between one hour and right up till lunchtime.
The best part is that I don’t have major addictive issues with Maté. If I don’t drink any for a few days, I don’t notice much of a headache until about the third day, and that lasts an hour or two. It makes it easy to cycle-on and cycle-off when I want to cleanse myself from caffeine. That also appeals to my philosophical need to not be chained to a chemical addiction that doesn’t add to my daily functioning.
I have a couple of sources for Yerba Maté, and I typically mailorder it by the kilo(gram). No, the reason is NOT because it’s fun to have a package arrive and tell people that your kilos from South America have finally arrived.
Canarias from Amazon.com - This is far and away my favorite Maté brand. It’s a very traditional Uruguayan brand that is super full flavored. In college, I’d order about 50 lbs of this stuff at a time, and go through all of it in 3-4 months.
Nativa or Guayaki at Whole Foods - The link I’ve shared has Yerba Maté in a bottle, just like the iced coffees that Starbucks will sell you. I love those in a pinch when I can’t make my own tea. However, I’d still recommend you buy a big bag of it and make the Maté in a French Press. It’s easy and more cost-effective. A pound of espresso costs anywhere from $8-$15, and 2 pounds of Maté will run you about $12. The Maté will last you for a good bit longer than the espresso will, even if you drink as much as I do.
Don’t get me wrong. I love drinking espresso. When I’m out and about, or having an early breakfast with someone, you’ll see me drinking a cappuccino with my meal. After living in SF long enough, I’ve developed a taste for good coffee. Espresso is delicious, and Matè can be hard to find in most restaurants.
I’d love to hear from you if you’re a fellow Yerba Maté drinker. If you live in SF, we’ll have to get together and make a batch.
Hope this helps.
Austin W. Gunter