Raise a Mug to the Evolution of Yerba Mate in California
Erva Brew Co. and others blend centuries of tradition into their teas.
Erva Brew Co. co-founder Tiffany Scalia was first introduced to yerba mate in college, while juggling three jobs to pay for her tuition at University of Southern California. Back then, she was a coffee drinker, relying on the free cups that were often available in common spaces around campus. Then, after one particularly grueling day at work, Scalia’s co-worker directed her toward a different drink: yerba mate.
“The mate revived me from the inside out. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced,” Scalia says. “Coffee always hit me right in the stomach and then left me shaky and anxious. With mate it’s just so much cleaner. It even provides, at least for me, a sense of optimism.”
From her very first sip, Scalia was hooked, and immediately replaced her coffee habit with gallon jugs of cold-brewed yerba mate. Native to humid regions of South America, when brewed as a tea, the dried yerba mate leaves and stems lend themselves to an earthy, smoky flavor profile and are packed with vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and antioxidants, in addition to a healthy dose of caffeine. According to some studies, yerba mate has been shown to improve the moods of those who consume it regularly.
While yerba mate tea has a centuries-old, precolonial history across South America, several California companies have embraced and are reimagining the traditional tea. Leading the trend is Guayaki, a bottled yerba mate brand headquartered in Sebastopol. It was launched in 1996 by a student at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo looking to share the tradition he grew up with in Argentina. In 2021, the founders of San Diego-based Boochcraft and Juneshine launched Kové Hard Yerba Mate, a spiked seltzer that uses yerba mate tea as its base, with a tasting room in the Miramar neighborhood.
Scalia didn’t initially launch a mate brand. After she graduated from college, she ran a cooperatively run, farm-to-festival catering company called 99 Potatoes. As she searched for something that would rejuvenate festival-goers without turning them into jittery, sleep-deprived zombies, she once again found the answer in mate, creating her company’s now-cult favorite Ginger Limeade flavor and serving it over ice.
In 2014, Scalia, Juan Rivera, and Ryan Beaucher, co-founded Erva Brew Co. They expanded their operation to farmers markets across Los Angeles while adding flavors like Tulsi Passion and Hibiscus Lemon to reflect the diverse cultures of the city. “We get a lot of people who have never heard of yerba mate and, after trying ours, they instantly switch over from drinking coffee. That’s really cool to witness,” Rivera says. “We also get customers from Argentina and Brazil, as well as Syria and Lebanon, which not a lot of people are aware that those countries also have traditions of drinking mate. It’s really cool to share our version with people who have never seen yerba mate offered here.”
Of course, there are naysayers to operations like Erva Brew Co., often belonging to a generation of longstanding mate drinkers who believe the tradition should be upheld in a certain way. Traditional yerba mate ceremonies involve preparing the tea leaves in a small gourd and pouring in hot water before passing it around in a group, with each participant sipping the mixture through the same metal straw. The concoction is bitter and strong to start, but water is added intermittently as the gourd travels through the group, gradually easing its sharp flavors.
But this traditional method of yerba mate consumption isn’t always ideal in warm and sunny Southern California, and especially not since March 2020, which happens to be when Rivera and Scalia launched their brick-and-mortar store in Pasadena. Thankfully, Erva Brew Co. already had a solid following from its local farmers market fame and was able to stay afloat with takeout services. In July 2020, they opened the shop to customers, offering blends like Lavender Lemon and Moroccan Mint on tap, as well as a selection of hot mate, yerba mate lattes, loose-leaf blends, and South American-inspired bites like vegetarian empanadas and Peruvian alfajores cookies sandwiched with dulce de leche, made weekly by Rivera’s mom.
Holding true to the ethos that helped Scalia launch her catering company, Erva Brew Co. is intentional about how it sources ingredients. For now, the company uses organic and fair trade mate from family farms in Misiones, Argentina, but the founders hope to step that up to direct trade as soon as possible. The herbs featured in their brews are organic and all of the fruits are sourced from local farmers markets. With extractive practices so prevalent in the coffee industry, Scalia and Rivera strive to make a positive economic impact.
Eventually, Rivera and Scalia hope to infuse Erva Brew Co. with some of the communal spirit that’s so integral to yerba mate traditions, too, such as adding couches so guests can lounge at the cafe. The original plan was to launch with tasting flights that could be passed between customers, as well as shareable bowls of canchita—Peruvian popcorn—that are currently offered in single packages.
Still recovering from a busy festival season, including a stop at Coachella, Scalia and Rivera are already at work on Erva Brew Co.’s next seasonal launch. Rivera has his eye on creating a mate with chicha morada, a fermented purple corn beverage that’s popular in Peru, Bolivia, and Chile. He and Scalia also hope to offer a sparkling mate and sparkling cola mate soon.
For the time being, the charming Pasadena shop boasts a vibrant mural behind the bar and a handful of seats for patrons, representing an ideal study spot for nearby CalTech students and a friendly neighborhood cafe option for wandering locals.
“We want to energize people in a new way, one that helps them fulfill their greatest potential,” Scalia says.