I still remember my first caffè macchiato. As a newly arrived correspondent in Italy, I drank it in early 1994 in the bar of Rome’s foreign press association and for just over two years it was my coffee-snob secret, a way to show off to less worldly friends when I visited the UK. Except that by the time I was repatriated in 1996, Starbucks had already colonised London and the world. The macchiato was just another overpriced item on the menu of coffee bars everywhere.
As for Italian coffee, so for other foods and beverages that were once found only in their home country. You can now buy South African biltong in London’s Paddington Station, order “Spanish” churros con chocolate in street markets around the world, enjoy Sichuan-style chicken from Panda Express in Kentucky, and Kentucky-style fried chicken from KFC in Chengdu, Sichuan province.
It is a pleasure, then, but also a puzzle, to find a popular national eating or drinking habit that has not globalised — or at least not yet.
If you visit Argentina, as I did recently, you will be unable to avoid mate, a tea-like drink made from yerba mate leaves. In Argentina, it is part of a sharing ritual: the leaves are steeped in hot water, and the liquid sipped through a bombilla — or metal straw — from a small gourd, often passed around between friends and family.
There are some important ground rules: don’t touch the straw, for instance. When I visited the Museum of Mate in Tigre, north of Buenos Aires — a shrine to the whole mate culture — I shared mate prepared by a group of Argentine visitors, who were admonished by the guide for using water that was too hot. Brand-name kettles sold in Argentina often include a mate symbol indicating the ideal temperature. Stores advertise supplies of hot water, so Argentines can replenish the flasks they carry to top up the gourd.
The museum screened a slightly dated promotional film that suggested mate would conquer the world. So why hasn’t it? In 2018, a record year, domestic sales totalled 262m kg, but exports accounted for less than a sixth of the total, despite a rebound in Syria, which was the biggest export market for yerba mate. (Syrian emigrants to Argentina in the 19th century brought the leaves back to the Middle East.)
One reason for the brew’s failure to travel may be that unlike coffee and tea, yerba mate — first cultivated and consumed by the indigenous Guaraní people — is produced mainly from trees in parts of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. The sharing ritual has not caught on outside Argentina, either. Even citizens of neighbouring Uruguay tend not to share their mate, and, on a recent marketing trip to South Korea, Carlos Coppoli of the Yerba Mate Institute found Koreans deterred by the idea of using the same straw, despite the fact that families there sometimes share soup from the same bowl.
So might mate yet go global? The key to new markets is often to customise the original product, while retaining the essential aspects. KFC, for instance, introduced ever-spicier tempura chicken strips to cater for differing tastes in inland China. In mate’s case, while the shared straw may not attract new customers, the whole concept of the drink as a symbol of friendship and togetherness could be powerful.
The institute is also more relaxed than mate purists are about how the leaves are deployed. Its US-targeted site, SayYesToMate.com, has rounded up a range of influencers who stress yerba mate’s health and nutritional benefits and offer multiple ways of imbibing or ingesting the product, such as in an iced almond latte or mate granola bars. There are plans to extend the campaign to Spain, France, Germany and the UK.
Mate producers have fought — and won — tougher battles in the past on the home front. In 1966, a Financial Times correspondent warned of a dire decline in domestic consumption. The young were turning to other soft drinks, our reporter wrote, while mate was seen as “for the old or otherwise passé”. Yet now, according to Coppoli, it is Argentina’s “most-drunk liquid after water”.
If proof were needed of mate’s potential, an official mate emoji was recently released, following a campaign that emphasised the drink’s popularity with everyone from Pope Francis to footballer Lionel Messi.
I found mate rather bitter for my taste, but my 2019 sip could, if the marketers have their way, be the equivalent of my 1994 macchiato moment. Mate has already made its way into the FT restaurant, albeit in the form of an iced tea mix, with “plenty of natural caffeine, and . . . a heady dose of Argentinian passion”. Perhaps everyone will be drinking mate in branded mate bars within a few years. That would be a marketing triumph for Coppoli and his colleagues. But as another step towards global cultural homogenisation, it would also be rather a shame.
This article has been amended to clarify the growing area for yerba mate.
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