Every Tuesday, a jolly yellow van can be found parked behind the Smith Campus Center at Pomona College. Inside, crates of a subtle cornerstone of 5C student culture await: Guayakí Yerba Mate.
The Coop Store, the crates’ final destination, has been buying the drink directly from Guayakí since around 2000-2001, according to Brenda Schmit, manager of retail services at the Coop.
“The company has been really good at coming to do samplings to encourage sales of Yerba Mate,” Schmit said. “It’s difficult to get it if I don’t get it directly from the company.”
The drink is by far the most popular item they offer — and has been since the Coop began selling it. As of Oct. 27, the Coop has sold 1,962 Guayakí products this semester.
“I think it’s a campus staple at this point, like a cultural thing at this school,” Coop Store assistant manager Molly Wu PO ’23 said. “I think it’s cool that, at least at Pomona, the Coop Store plays a role in supplying that.”
During the first few weeks of the fall 2021 semester, restocks lagged behind demand.
“We had some supply issues, and they weren’t coming as often as they should have been,” Wu said. “And we would get asked about it every single shift, every single day. ‘Where’s the Yerba Mate? Where’s the Yerba Mate?’ And when we finally got it, people were just buying it by the fours and fives.”
Although Guayakí started selling yerba mate in 1996 in Southern California, the traditional version has been drunk for hundreds of years. Popular in Uruguay, Argentina, Paraguay and Southern Brazil, yerba mate is an infusion drink from the Ilex Paraguariensis plant native to Paraguay, according to Claremont McKenna College professor Julio Garín, who is from Uruguay, the country with the highest per-capita consumption of mate.
“Yerba mate on campus is very different from traditional yerba. For me, it’s another beverage — it doesn’t have the same components,” Garín said about the campus favorite. “That drink, you don’t share, and the taste is very different.”
It is traditionally prepared in a hollowed out gourd called mate, which is filled at least halfway with the dried yerba mate herb and drunk with the help of a special metal filtering straw (bombilla). It is usually prepared with hot water carried in a thermos, which is used to refill the gourd after drinking. It can also be made with cold water, as is popular in Paraguay; in this case it is called tereré.
“The culture of mate is very interesting, because you share the mate. You drink from the straw and share it among friends,” Garín said. “And it’s not only that — if you go to a new place and get introduced to new people, it’s not uncommon at all to share mate with folks you have never met before.”
Parents introduce children to drinking mate early on, although in moderation.
“Parents give the first sip of mate to the kids, and they record their expressions because it’s a very particular taste,” said Garín. “The kids like it. It makes them feel like adults; it’s like a rite of passage.”
Uruguayans drink so much mate that they are playfully mocked for it by people from other mate-drinking cultures — namely Argentinians, he said.
“It’s a stereotype [of Uruguay] that you see people walking with mate under their arm — people sometimes even drive while drinking mate,” Garín said.
However, in the United States, people do not drive with a mate in one hand, or share a drink with strangers from the same bombilla.
“I don’t drink [yerba mate] as often in the U.S., only once or twice per week, on days that I don’t teach,” Garín said. “I do miss drinking [yerba mate] with other folks. That’s a big part of it — sharing the mate. So that’s also why I don’t drink as much here.”
“I like how light [Yerba Mate] is, and it doesn’t affect my digestion as much as coffee does.” —Kate de Lafourcade SC ’23
Other than the cultural tradition, an appeal of the drink is its high caffeine content. This seems to be the draw for 5C students to the Guayakí infusions: a more pleasant alternative to coffee.
“I’m a fan of Yerba Mate,” Wu said. “I don’t drink coffee, but I feel like the tea is a good substitute when I’m tired.” She recounted being excited whenever she found dented bottles that couldn’t be sold at the Coop Store, as she could have those for free.
The Coop Store isn’t the only 5C store that has sold Yerba Mate. The Pit Stop at Pitzer College does, too, and The Motley at Scripps College used to sell Yerba Mate as well.
“When it was [sold] at the Motley, I’d get it maybe once a month, mostly during midterms and finals … but it would be a LOT [of Yerba Mate]. I don’t drink it regularly.” Kate de Lafourcade SC ’23 said. “I think coffee is really disgusting, and I hate the way it tastes. I like how light [Yerba Mate] is, and it doesn’t affect my digestion as much as coffee does.”
Amelia Carttar PO ’22 first tasted mate from her grandfather’s bombilla, but didn’t like the bitterness. Her first year at Claremont, she rediscovered the appeal of yerba mate.
“I was buying a bunch of bottles at the beginning of the semester, so I ended up buying the leaves because I was spending a lot of money on bottles,” Carttar said. “I drink it when I need some caffeine that won’t make me so anxious. It helps me focus more [than other caffeinated drinks].”