Mate Beer Anyone?

Mate Exchange logoOne evening in late January, I got a phone call from 23-year-old Giancarlo Vigil in Durango, Colorado, who I hadn’t spoken with since he was a kid. At the end of an hour, we’d had a great, wide-ranging conversation, mostly about beer and yerba mate, the tea popular in Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil and other parts of South America. We also had a deal. He’d send two pounds of high quality Brazilian mate to me in California, and I’d use some in my next homebrewed beer. Giancarlo was excited. I was intimidated. I liked the plan; I just didn’t have any idea how to make it happen.

Our phone call had come about after I read an online article from Fort Lewis College, located in Durango, about Giancarlo’s success with his young business, The Maté Exchange. I called his grandmother, Marta Vigil, my good friend of over thirty years, to offer congratulations.

Giancarlo Vigil at the Maté Exchange bar (Photo Melissa Reed)

Giancarlo Vigil at the Maté Exchange bar in Durango, CO (Photo Melissa Reed)

When I last visited with Marta’s extended family in 2014 in Denver, Giancarlo was in Argentina. An Economics and Spanish major, he came home to Colorado nine months later with a hard-core Argentina accent (¡Che, vos!) and a love of mate. Even before his 2015 graduation, he’d started importing and selling the caffeinated tea to anyone he could. Last August, Giancarlo and his team/employees bested 42 other teams to take first place in the Fort Lewis Hawk Tank. The competition styled after Shark Tank was the culmination of an intense six-month program that provided seed money and mentoring to young entrepreneurs. These days, everyone from friends to Durango grocery stores is buying Giancarlo’s mate—so much that in November he called his Brazilian supplier with a one-ton order.

In our conversation, Giancarlo suggested I brew a light-colored beer than might let the subtle greenish tint of the mate show. I liked the idea of a blond ale that wouldn’t overwhelm with hop flavors or dark-roasted grains. I hung up and went to pick my husband Hugo’s brain.

During his 23 years of brewing at Coors and working in R&D, he’d done some interesting things, and a few weird ones, but never a mate beer. We reasoned that since mate, like hops, is bitter, we could add it late in the boil. Another idea would be to wait until knockout (when the heat is turned off), much like steeping a regular cup of tea. Or we could brew the tea separately and add it to the beer, but when? At knockout or after cool down and just before pitching (adding) the yeast? Possibly after fermentation and before bottling. And how much should we use for five gallons of beer? “I don’t think I’d put it in the mash,” Hugo said. “Then it would go through the whole boil and probably just make the beer overly bitter. As for how much, I don’t know.”

I searched for online advice and consulted a couple of brewing books, without much luck. I went to bed that night making a mental list of people I could go to. I was only sure of two things, that I couldn’t disappoint the winner of Hawk Tank and that I needed educating. What I couldn’t know then was that over the next month I was going to get a lot of advice from some amazing brewers, including a few famous ones. Check back next Tuesday to read their suggestions and find out how brew day went.

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