You may have heard of mate (pronounced mah-tay, and not to be confused with all the 'mate we've had around), the herbal tea that's ubiquitous in South America. Herbal tea drinkers like it for its super-healthy (so the claims go) antioxidants and polyphenols, and when it's brewed right, it's a great herbal tea: rich and grassy with a nice natural sweetness.
The problem is that unless you brew it just right, yerba mate turns horribly, disgustingly bitter. And it's plenty easy to brew very wrong.
I tried, mate. I got the traditional brewing gourd. I sucked hot, poorly filtered tea through a scorching metal bombilla. I followed all the methodical, idiosyncratic brewing instructions. And I'm sorry, but you still tasted irreparably bitter. We're done. I have guayusa now.
Guayusa (pronounced gwhy-you-suh) is only starting to make inroads into the U.S., but it's hardly new. It's been drunk in the Amazon for thousands of years, and it's still essential to the daily traditions of many Ecuadorians today. It's a drink historically brewed in the early morning hours, around 4 AM, as a family starts their day—a sort of communal pick-me-up not unlike coffee here.
The flavor is similar to mate, but with a more plush, fruity flavor and a complete lack of bitterness. Tasting invites comparison to green tea, but the flavor is less tannic and the texture is more creamy (much more so than other herbal teas I've tried). Unlike green tea, drinking it on an empty stomach won't give you a stomach ache. And just as important, it's nearly impossible to overbrew, and leaves can be resteeped half a dozen times before their flavor starts to wane.
You can brew guayusa like any other herbal tea. Use freshly boiled water and steep for one to five minutes, depending on how strong you like it. I use about one tablespoon of loose leaves for four ounces of water, which makes a fast-steeping (less than a minute) concentrated brew that I resteep all afternoon.
As for as health claims go, guayusa's are at least as impressive as mate's (which is itself just as convincing as green tea); it boasts loads of antioxidants and polyphenols, and is often used by herbalists as a strategy to increase metabolism and decrease appetite.* Perhaps more relevant to our caffeine nation: guayusa packs a hell of a caffeine punch, but it's far gentler than coffee and is less likely to cause jitters (your mileage, of course, may vary).
* You should always take these claims with substantial grains of salt, as they're frequently not subject to rigorous academic review. But it's a selling point worth mentioning, and for whatever my anecdotal experience may be worth to you, my body feels far happier after an afternoon of drinking guayusa than most other beverages.
The best guayusa I've had comes from Runa, a new company that works directly with small farms run by locals in Ecuador. They sell it plain and in blends with peppermint, spices, ginger, and others—all available in tea bags ($7 for 16 tea bags) or loose leaves (about $6 for 1.5 ounces, which lasts a while). They also have bottled iced versions in the works.
Guayusa is still relatively unknown here, but now's a good time for that to change. Have you ever tried it?
Disclosure: Sample provided for review.