There’s no doubt Red Bull has staked its claim on the music industry (it just launched a web series, “Mavens,” dedicated to women in the industry), but how would you feel if we told you that things were going in the other direction, now that the music people are getting involved in the business of energized-drink making? It’s true: John Barclay of Bossa Nova Civic Club recently launched a yerba mate soda company called White Label. And the stuff ranks right up there with the energy-drink heavy hitters.
“There’s around 75 mg of caffeine per bottle which is on par with most energy drinks,” Barclay told us. (For reference, a cup of coffee contains around 95 mg.)
Barclay and his two business partners, Jesse Rudoy and Julian Duron, started the company with help from an old friend who was “essentially born into” the soda business. “His father started working in flavor development, sourcing, and production decades ago in the Bronx,” he explained. “So we were very lucky to have access to his resources and knowledge.”
The new venture isn’t as random as you might expect, and even if the golden-shower-hued liquid looks the part, it’s not exactly a taurine-spiked pee drink he’s brewing. Actually, mate drinks, carbonated brews especially, have developed something of a cult following in the world of underground electronic music.
Yerba mate, a potent herbal tea, can be traced back to pre-colonial Brazil, where it was traditionally consumed from a gourd. The drink remains popular in South America, Uruguay especially, where the old-school vessel has received an update in the form of plastic, silicone, or metal gourds. Depending on your familiarity with psychedelic drugs and tolerance for an objectively horrible EDM sub-genre known as psytrance, it’s possible you’ve run into yerba mate drinkers in Brooklyn before. Typically they’re unironically rocking white people dreads and sucking on bombillas (special filtered straws that prevent you from choking on yerba mate herb gunk). Usually, they picked up the habit from studying abroad in Argentina, or during a solo backpacking trip to Brazil.
Mate sodas, however, go back a bit further than 20-something Bard graduates who won’t stop saying “gap year” when we all know it’s just called funemployment. You’ve probably come across a brand called Materva, which is usually stocked in bodegas carrying Latin American imports– it’s the golden can stamped with an old-timey red seal depicting a line-drawn mate gourd and the blessed herb, usually located next to the Coco Rico. Materva was originally bottled and sold in Cuba starting in the 1920s until the Cuban Revolution, when production was moved to the United States.
Presumably, this is how mate made its way to Germany, where the producer Club-Mate was born in the early ’90s. The highly caffeinated beverage, which the drink makers say “promotes a state of heightened alertness and relaxation,” combined with the company’s practice of eschewing traditional advertising mechanisms, won Club-Mate a devoted following across the Berlin nightlife scene and amongst hackers (people who wanted to stay up all night, essentially).
It was here, something like five years ago, where Barclay was first introduced to what he called the mate soda “phenomenon.” He worked his way backwards from Berlin, seeking out Materva when he got back to the U.S., and then finally sampling the straight herbal variety.
In Berlin, small-batch mate sodas are plentiful, thanks to a flourishing hobbyist subculture: like the at-home kombucha brewers who trade “mothers,” mate soda people brew the stuff at home and squabble over recipes in mate forums on the internet. Meanwhile, studies have found yerba mate to be rich in antioxidants and probably better for you than coffee. Add sugar and take into account mate’s mild psychoactive properties plus the creative types who are drawn to the stuff, and it’s not so surprising that the carbonated beverage has developed a shared mythology that borders on mysticism. There’s a reason why the Club-Mate logo, officially a gaucho, looks a lot like a warlock wizard man– we just can’t say for sure what that reason is, but that’s the way we like our mysteries.
Club-Mate made its way to the U.S. in 2008 by way of a conference organized by a publication called 2600 which describes itself as “the hacker quarterly,” and the beverage quickly developed a following. Bossa Nova and Trans-Pecos both sell Club-Mate in addition to a few enlightened bodegas (including one in Greenpoint, probably because it’s right next to the Kickstarter offices), but it’s the DIY community that’s really deserving of the credit for popularizing the stuff in Brooklyn. And it wasn’t easy, as Vice’s Motherboard detailed in their 2014 article on the Club-Mate phenomenon:
John Barclay went to some lengths to procure his first shipment of the mystical libation. After tasting Club-Mate at a club in Berlin at the insistence of a friend (it’s a popular mixer for vodka or rum), Barclay set out to find a source in the US. He drove two hours to buy a crate out of the trunk of a man’s car at an Applebee’s parking lot in New York.
Barclay told Vice that the reason he worked so hard to stock and sell the soda (at a rate of “roughly a mini-van full” every two weeks) “is because we believe it to have a metaphysical relationship with techno music.” He added that there is “some sort of cosmic bond between this mysterious potion and the exploration of computer technologies.”
Eventually, as Barclay explained to us by email, the schlep got to be too much. “Without a doubt, Club-Mate’s early shaky American distribution logistics led us, in part, to exploring our own brand,” he said. “It’s also very expensive to import soda, so by the time it hits shelves over here it’s roughly double the price it would sell for in Germany.” At the Greenpoint bodega, a 500 ml bottle goes for a whopping $6.99. A slightly smaller 12 oz bottle of White Label, on the other hand, retails for about $3.
Barclay has his roots in the DIY scene, and Bossa Nova has a reputation for being, well, pretty rad and anything-goes for an up-to-code club. But White Label, he insisted, “is anything but DIY.” It’s a true “craft soda” and is bottled “professionally and on a legitimate industrial scale,” he said.
Unlike most mate sodas on the market, White Label is made from high-quality stuff. “I would say our ingredients are more refined,” Barclay said. That means organic cane sugar (and less of it), molasses, and naturally occurring caffeine. White Label has an added bonus of ashwagandha, which he described as “an ayurvedic Indian herb traditionally used for its calming properties.” An online herb supplier called Mountain Rose compared ashwagandha to ginseng, with effects such as “longevity and vitality.” Sounds great, even if its scent is often described as eau de “horse urine.”
Then again, as fans of Club-Mate will understand, any mate soda that tastes overly delicious is missing the point entirely. “Most people find there to be a notably different ‘buzz’ achieved with yerba mate that sets it apart from energy drinks and other caffeine sources,” Barclay said. Drink responsibly, y’all.