European settlers did not discover the invigorating powers of Yerba Mate until the 17th century. But for almost two centuries before, the indigenous tribes of South America had been harvesting the Ilex paraguarensis tree and steeping its leaves for the sense of community it promoted.
Last year this mystical drink arrived in Delray Beach at Project Mate Bar. While yerba mate is available at health markets and Whole Foods, this bar is the first of its type in the South Florida, and maybe even the state. They're celebrating their one year anniversary Sunday night.
Twirling her long dark hair, co-owner Daniele Flores puts down her gourd (a traditional cup that holds her concoction of Yerba Mate) and slurps through the long metal straw that filters the leaves from being ingested. She rests this odd contraption on the counter to explain the different flavored teas to an older woman, who after trying them all in the shop, wanted to take a box home to share with her family.
"It's social, and about sharing," Flores explains while sipping her brew. "It's a friendship conductor. In the ancient times mate was about listening and talking to each other. This space was created to be an extension of that."
Mate is harvested in the rainforests of Paraguay, Uruguay, Brazil, and Argentina. The branches of the tree are cut and roasted over an open fire to release natural enzymes (this process gives the tea its signature smoky flavor). Cultivators in this region belong to the indigenous tribes. The recent popularity of mate -- there are mate bars throughout Europe and a mate beer exists too -- has bolstered their economy.
The herbal tea is cultivated differently across South American cultures, and depending on the region, will vary in taste. In Argentina, the leaves are fermented longer, making their version of the drink more acidic. In Brazil, the leaves are packaged almost immediately after harvest, and has less of the woodsy flavor.
At Project Mate Bar, mate is prepared using the Brazilian method. Even though the drink is traditionally served hot, South Florida's heat and humidity have influenced Flores to alter the recipe slightly. In Delray Beach, mate is prepared cold with mate tea ice cubes to keep from diluting the mixture.
Served in a mason jar, yerba mate tea is pale green. The flavor is bitter, but not bad. The shop also sells diffused mate teas for those who prefer a sweeter flavor, but stevia is the only sweetener offered.
"People like to get energy from the drink," Flores says. "It's very natural and there is nothing comparable to it: it's very earthy, green, and a little smoky."
With double the amount of caffeine as black tea, and almost double the amount of antioxidants as green tea, yerba mate is also heralded as a nourishing alternative to coffee. Drinking mate does not cause headaches or jitters like coffee can. Instead, it's been known to enhance focus, reduce stress, and aid digestion. Some even argue it suppresses appetite.
However, according to the Los Angeles Times, a 2009 study found that despite potential health benefits, lifelong yerba mate drinkers (those who drink more than a liter a day) are more at risk for cancers of the esophagus, lungs, mouth, pharynx, and larynx, and colon.
"That's completely not true, mate is natural and has no side effects," Flores says shaking her head. "We give it to dogs, to babies, to 95-year-olds. We have nothing to contradict this."
Flores is a Brazilian native and was raised drinking the tea since she was five years old. She said her grandmother would add sugar to it to make it sweeter. Now, Flores predicts that she drinks about one liter a day at the shop and dismisses those studies. (The studies do suggest that it might not be the mate leaves that are carcinogenic but the pesticides used to fertilize the plant.)
Her business partner and co-owner Jonathan Delgado is from New York but has Costa Rican roots. While he didn't grow up drinking mate ritually like Flores, Delgado is a convert. Together they opened their shop on Delray Beach's Artists' Alley exactly a year ago this Sunday.
They started small and didn't even charge first time customers (they accepted only donations) the first six months to introduce the tea to Delray Beach. Currently only Flores and Delgado man the store, which has proved exceptionally tough when one of them is on vacation or sick. Flores thinks that Delgado and her are ready to hire someone else to help them serve the tea.
"They would have to have a connection to mate like Jonathan and I do," Flores points out. "They would have to have been drinking it their whole life and understand what it does to explain it to the customers."
Flores estimates that 60% of the people that enter the door have never tried yerba mate before. Of those almost all will return, and most bring friends with them. She touts that other tea enthusiasts from the neighborhood congregate there too. She points to one man in particular.
"He works at a tea shop. I won't say where to not get him in trouble but he's a certified teaologist," Flores says raising he reyebrows. "It's the second time he's been here today and he brought a friend."
The bar also is like a consignment shop. It exhibits the artwork of local artists and when a patron decides to buy a piece, Flores returns the money to the artist. They also sell energy stones and jewelry.
"We focus on the teas but really mate is a way for the community to come together," Flores says. "The place becomes a magnet for creative people. It's magical."
Project Mate Bar celebrates their one year anniversary with the community this Sunday, September 15, from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. There will be live music, networking opportunities, and, of course, plenty of mate.
Project Mate Bar is located at 314 NE Fourth St. in Delray Beach. Call 561-926-0605, or visit
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