09 November 2008

Yerba Maté

This week, along with really starting to settle into to work at Thomson (as opposed to really actually get much work done (okay I did get lots done, but I don't yet feel truly productive) which is my aspiration for this week) I had a new experience.

Fabio a half Argentinian, half Italian member of my lab kindly introduced me to Yerba Maté. Another new (to me) legal psychoactive drug. Yes, for those Coffee and Chocolate users out there, you too are psychoactive drug users, get over it and move on with your lives.

I had only had maté via a fairly lame "iced tea" variety beverage, which wasn't particularly tasty or impressive. However, I knew that maté was the beverage of choice in Brazil for filling there the same ecological niche in the world of human ingestibles as that occupied by coffee in the West and tea in the East. It turns out I only knew half. Yerba apparently is the hot beverage of choice in Argentina, eastern Paraguay, western Uruguay and southern Brazil. Moreover, while many of it's psychoactive properties are similiar to those of it's beverage cousins, it appears that yerba maté has a superior chemical profile insofar as it increases attentivness to a greater degree than tea (which I've always found quite mild) without the jitteriness induced by coffee.

Of course everything has its tradeoffs and maté is a finicky drink. As Fabio showed me, to make yerba maté properly one first has to loosely pack the yerba herb into a cup (preferably with a gourd shape) into which a special spoon (essentially a straw with a slotted spoonlike bottom). Then hot, but not boiling, water needs to be slowly poured into the herb. The water cannot be poured to fast as it needs to slowly seep into the spaces between the herb particles. If poured too fast the herb will become blocked and little and inferior beverage will result (ditto for using too much water). If the water isn't hot enough, you won't get the enjoyable warm that I at least associate with a good cup of tea, and if it's too hot it will burn the beverage resulting in a very bitter brew.

To drink, you sip through the spoon/straw (otherwise known as a bomba) and then slowly refill your cup with more warm/hot water. It's a fun ritual to share with friends and fairly relaxing in and of itself (I tend to drink my tea compulsively while reading the news, which defeats half the purpose of taking some time to drink a hot soothing beverage). Also while the setup takes quite awhile, once the cup is ready, one can make many washes of drink from the same packed cup (you can probably use a prepared cup of yerba every day for a week before it's time to clean and repack)

I enjoyed drinking maté. I liked the preparation, the taste was a bit strong/bitter and takes some getting used to. I also felt a mild increase in alertness while at the same time felt quite mellow. Of course this could be due to a million other factors including the placebo effect. Nonetheless it was neat and I'll probably add yerba to my collection of drinkables.

So the pros of maté:
  • nice psychoactive properties
  • fun parephenelia
  • soothing preperation ritual
  • can reuse the herb for many washes
the cons:
  • not as tasty as tea, although far better than coffee (yes I don't like coffee, I try it every chance I get, but I still think even the best coffee tastes like a cross been funky chocolate and burnt cigarettes - okay maybe not that bad, but you get the idea)
  • easy to muck up and a bit finicky
  • somewhat difficult to find in many places (both paraphernalia and herb)

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