Mate may not be well-known over here, but in Berlin it's a fixture of the city's dance and hacker cultures. A soda made from South American yerba mate extract, it's long had a cult following in Brooklyn's underground party scene thanks to its mellow yet energizing effects -- but was always in short supply thanks to those import lags. So it's about time Brooklyn got their own mate, courtesy of Jesse Rudoy, Julian Duron and John Barclay's new White Label brand. Read our Q&A with Rudoy and Barclay below about the history of mate soda, the long process of finding the White Label flavor and what its introduction now means for New York's party scene.
How did you first encounter mate?
Jesse Rudoy: I first tasted it when I was 16. Mate is common in every part of Brazil, but when I traveled to the South and I went to Argentina, I actually drank it there - in the South of Brazil and Argentina, in the gourds and as the hot tea – which is traditional. Fast forward to 2012 when John opened [Bossa Nova Civic Club], and was the first person in New York to import Club Mate. I had not seen it in soda form, and so I quickly became a fan of Club Mate because of Bossa.
John Barclay: The first time I had it was in Berlin – it was Club Mate, and then I had, Materva, which was the first brand. I believe it was originally Cuban, and then it moved to Miami -- it was sort of a cult Miami favorite. But Materva has been around for a really long time, for decades…
JR: It's been around since the 20s or something...
JB: It started in Cuba – it's a real deal soda. It's almost like a ginger ale, like a syrupy sort of thing.
JR: It's like to mate, what ginger ale is to ginger.. You don't really taste it, but it's supposedly in there.
Can you explain the culture surrounding mate? How does it differ from Berlin or Miami in Brooklyn?
JB: I think the crowd, overall, is still the same. It's very popular with dance music – especially techno. Club Mate, specifically, is popular with hackers. I suppose, Yerba Mate soda, in general, is popular with hackers, and sort of by default, it became popular with techno too – they're both tech-based
So why did you guys feel the need to make your own brand of mate soda?
JB: There's a lot of sort of logistical problems with importing a soda – first and foremost, it's very expensive, and then, keeping it in stock, as a bar owner, was very difficult. And then, on top of that, we weren't very happy with our options for ingredients in the US for yerba mate sodas. We thought that the options were a little to sweet and not necessarily using the best ingredients.
So you wanted to make it healthier?
JB: Well, I don't know if I would use the term 'healthier,' but it's more refined – ours has less sugar than both Materva and Club Mate. We like to think it's better ingredients across the board – it's overwhelmingly organic. It's real sugar – it's real molasses.
We are also fans of ashwaghanda, and thought that any highly-caffeinated soda could benefit from a little bit of rounding off, so to speak.
So I see that you're looking to distribute to cafes, and restaurants in addition to the more traditional nightclubs etc. Is White Label not just going to be a part of the club scene then?
JB: No, not at all. Our unique angle here, where we're positioned to launch it, is to the dance-music world here in Brooklyn -- but it's a caffeinated beverage, just like coffee or tea, so it can be enjoyed in the middle of the day, or in the morning. In South America, it often just replaces coffee. People won't drink coffee, they'll drink Yerba Mate.
JR: I also think being involved in dance music culture in Brooklyn for the past few years, we've seen a lot of giant global brands sort of target this scene and say, “We want to be in with you," or “We want you to think well of our product." [It's not just mate brands, it's] energy drinks, or sunglasses have targeted this group, and I think it's a fun and worthwhile thing to be like, what if there was a brand, or a product that actually originated from this realm? Instead of having a global brand being thrust onto us?
So how did you guys come up with the name White Label?
JB: In the food and beverage world, white label is almost like a generic product that you're trying to move quickly.
JR: Sometimes brands will – "White Label" for someone -- and it means you are producing your product, and letting other people stamp their name onto it.
JB: Given our direct connection to dance music culture, there's also the obvious reference to white label records. The name "White Label" conveys a few rich concepts that lead to us choosing it. It's perpetually "new" or in a state of pre-release which is exciting, and this idea carries directly over to the food industry describing bulk food / beverages that have not yet been branded. The 12" record tie in works as well because those copies are highly coveted by collectors and DJs, etc. That's how we want people to feel about our soda.
Tell me about the process of finding your flavor, and creating the formula.
JB: It took us probably, 6 months of something to nail the formula down. An old friend of mine, I came up with an idea a couple years ago, and I started going around to people, and trying to see if I can find a way to develop this or collaborate, and I didn't really connect with anybody. And then I remembered this guy I've know for over a decade that did something in the [mate soda] business, so I called him and he said his family specializes in flavor development, sourcing production – like everything we needed. So we told him what we were looking for, and just did round after round after round, until we got what we liked. Then we did taste tests with peers, and figured out the right amount of sugar and the right amount of molasses, right amount of caffeine, and sort of worked on the buzz that you get from it too. We took everybody's feedback and our own, and finally, came upon our formula.
So the soda has the earthy, really natural taste – is that what you're going for as a brand?
JB: Yeah, for sure. I think the other options [of mate soda], at least in the United States right now are a little syrupy, too sugary for our personal tastes.
JR: One of the challenges of making this, too, was figuring out how to produce it on a large scale without adding preservatives, and that took so much longer and so much figuring out. A lot of sodas use preservatives to keep it stable, we're glad to not use any.
White Label Yerba Mate Soda is available at Bossa Nova Civic Club, House of Yes, Black Flamingo, Dimes Market, Schimanski, and more. Find your local stockist here.