Yerba Mat & eacute;. Yes, it rhymes a little with Caramel Latt & eacute;, or an Iced Mocha Grand & eacute;. But that, my friends, is where the similarity ends. My first experience with this tea-like South American drink was not with the beverage itself, but with the wooden vessels it comes in. I had seen them, lined up on a counter at my fave coffee shop, for several weeks but had been afraid to ask. After all, with their sleek metal straws and portly bowls, I had to wonder, had my beloved Rocket on Main become a head shop or opium den?
A friend filled me in, and before I knew it, I was in at least once a day for the astringent, bracing beverage, which I took to work in the plain old paper cups I was used to, and which I am convinced got me through a nasty, pre-winter head cold. I began to run into several other friends, all as previously coffee-addicted as myself, heading in or out of the Rocket with their cups of yerba cradled against their jackets. Weirdest of all, I quit craving my three cups a day of office coffee with cream and sugar, lost five pounds (no doubt from cutting out a double-iced mocha every morning) and even convinced our skeptical associate editor of yerba's charms.
"I read a lot of studies on yerba before we introduced it, " says Tom Wood, manager of the Rocket Coffee House on Main, "and I researched it really thoroughly because I was looking for a bad thing. I couldn't find anything. Everything I read about it was so positive. "
Okay, so what exactly is yerba? Flex Paraguariensis is related to the holly family and grows wild in Argentina, Chile, Peru and Brazil, as well as in Paraguay, where it is cultivated. Rich in vitamins A, B-1, B-2 and the B-complex vitamins, C and E, yerba also offers carotene, riboflavin, pantothenic acid, magnesium, calcium, iron and potassium, but strangely enough only trace amounts of caffeine. The principal stimulant of yerba, mateine, is much milder than caffeine and, according to published materials on display at the Rocket, is capable of suppressing appetite, boosting libido, increasing concentration and increasing oxygen throughout the bloodstream. Not bad for a simple infusion of water and leaves.
"People don't always like it at first, " says Wood. "It's definitely an acquired taste. But it's really taken off in the six months we've had it -- and a lot of it has to do with word of mouth. "
The Rocket on Main, and, soon, the Rocket Market on 43rd serve only the Canarias brand, which Wood decided on after trying a number of blends. "It's the best one out there, " says Wood. "They use only the fine-ground leaves, no twigs or stems or anything else that doesn't add anything or that muddies the taste. "
While yerba can be made with a coffee filter and a pot or even brewed with a tea ball, one of the best ways to enjoy it is with the wooden mug and metal straws (or bombillas). The bombilla has a filtered end that keeps the steeping leaves from traveling up the straw, and the idea is to keep refreshing the leaves with a steady supply of hot --but not boiling -- water. In addition to the ritual of positioning the bombilla just so and adding water with a little honey and lemon, yerba taken this way is the exact opposite of a double espresso tossed back in a speeding car while late to work.
"I think people are really excited to have an alternative like this, " says Wood, who adds that coffee sales are still just as strong at the Rocket. "It won't ever replace good coffee. But it makes people feel so good, and it's a great way to just sit and relax for a change. "