Whether steamed through an espresso machine and toted in a sleek travel mug or sipped from a gourd and bombilla in a slow ceremony, yerba maté is the new, hip beverage of choice for health-conscious customers looking to kick their coffee habit.
Yerba maté, steeped from the dried leaves and stems of the tropical rain forest plant Ilex paraguariensis, has been a South American staple for centuries as a healthful stimulant and a cultural tradition. Now in the United States, maté attracts two main consumer groups, according to Aaron Henderson of Wisdom Natural Brands: coffee-dependent baby boomers looking for a more healthful alternative, and younger customers searching for a nutritious, invigorating drink that also feels en vogue.
?They?re looking for the same pep, but without the jitters and the crash,? says Saja Butler, department manager and assistant grocery buyer for the Fort Collins Food Co-op in Fort Collins, Colo.
With two growing target audiences and a profit margin of almost a dollar more per box than other products in the tea category, Henderson says, maté can be a big-earning category. A little knowledge about maté and some strategic marketing and placement can keep customers coming back again and again.
Knowledge is key
At the Fort Collins co-op, former grocery manager Derek Markham gathered up his employees to experiment with maté. After they had tried maté and knew its benefits, the employees were able to give personal recommendations to customers.
Employees who know that maté has been shown to contain a long list of nutrients, including vitamins A, C, E and the B-complex, as well as calcium, magnesium, iron and potassium, will be able to assure customers of the drink?s health benefits.
Because it has been shown to contain xanthine alkaloids, smooth-muscle relaxants that can dilate bronchi, maté has been used to treat asthma. Also, since maté is a stimulant, many dieters use it as an appetite suppressant.
But all other uses aside, maté?s main attraction seems to be as a coffee alternative—and the maté companies know how to reach the java crowd. For customers who are trying to leave coffee behind but still crave its smooth, nutty taste, Guayaki Yerba Maté created Java Maté. The blend of the ram?n nut in dark roast with mocha and vanilla makes a flavorful option for customers who like the coffee taste, but want the benefits of maté. For those who like flavored teas, Wisdom Natural Brands produces vanilla, chai spice and lemon-flavored maté. To add to the beverage?s health benefits, maté drinkers can spike their brew with medicinal herbs, such as peppermint to soothe the digestive system or echinacea to boost the immune system.
Sipping for a cause: the environment
Sustainability is a major selling point you can drive home with environmentally concerned customers. Several maté companies make a special effort to deal fairly with their South American workers and invest in the environment instead of contributing to its decay. Guayaki Yerba Maté comes from a 20,000-acre rain forest preserve in Paraguay, which is home to more than 332 bird and animal species. The 34 indigenous families earn income from maté production, and the company?s donations and presence help protect the preserve. You can assure your maté customers that their purchase is environmentally and socially supportable in the long run.
Prepare with panache
Traditionally, South American maté is passed around in a slow, communal ceremony. It is prepared in a cured gourd and sipped through a straw called a bombilla, which has a filter on the end to strain out the loose maté leaves. This might appeal to a segment of consumers, but maté can be prepared in other ways that might fit more easily into the hurried 21st century lifestyle.
Maté tea bags can be dropped into a bottle of cold water and shaken for a nutritious lift on the go. Loose maté can also be brewed in a regular coffee maker, a French press, or even prepared in an espresso machine—just trade out the coffee beans for the maté leaves. Maté tea bags can also be prepared with hot water, just like other teas.
Sample, sample, sample
Unfortunately, no matter how much information you give customers about the health benefits of maté, some first-time consumers will still be skeptical about buying a whole box of tea bags or an entire bag of loose leaves without knowing what maté tastes like. Banish their maté anxieties. How? ?Sample, sample, sample!? says Butler, of the Fort Collins co-op. Hosting a sample day in your store with a freshly brewed pot of maté gives customers confidence about the flavor of the product they are buying. An air pot can keep maté warm and ready to be divided into small sample cups. Giving away individual tea bags for customers to take home gives patrons a reminder of the product and makes you look generous. With the help of the maté companies, it won?t hurt your store?s budget either. Nativa Yerba Maté works on a cooperative basis with stores to provide enough maté to display, and Guayaki and Wisdom Natural Brands are also willing to provide samples.
Market that maté
A little creative grouping and marketing can also go a long way to boost maté sales. Give maté its own section to help attract new customers and make it easier for maté drinkers to find their favorite products (maté products often get lost when displayed with tea).
Promoting gourd and bombilla kits can also draw add-on sales. Although they might not move as quickly, they make creative gifts and liven up a maté display.
As the number of maté drinkers increases, creative marketing and your knowledge about the products will become more important. And according to Guayaki co-founder David Karr, the number of maté drinkers is sure to increase. ?Coffee fueled the industrial revolution,? he says, ?And now maté is the fuel for the green revolution.?
Hilary Oliver is a freelance writer in Fort Collins, Colo.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 9/p. 60, 62