So, last night I was sitting on a friend’s couch, slumped back and in comfortable conversation. Tea came up. This, as I’ve mentioned before, happens fairly frequently. After all, tea is what I do, so naturally it becomes a share of what I talk about. As frequent and usual as these conversations are, however, in this particular tea conversation something unusual occurred. But that couch and that conversation is not where this story begins.
It begins in a natural hot spring in northern Arizona, one of two, actually, that sit perched on the side of a cliff overlooking the Verde river about twenty feet below. The springs themselves don’t look entirely natural—a stray palm tree marks the site and a spread of concrete surrounds them, giving it a luxurious spa sort of feeling. Crumbling, concrete walls surround the smaller and warmer of the two, marking the only remains of a high-class hotel that operated in the 1920’s and is rumored to have swarmed with gangsters during the days of prohibition. A fire in the late 50’s leveled the hotel and the gangsters never returned, but adventurous folk who don’t require clean sheets and a continental breakfast still visit the area today, pitching tents, parking RVs, and making themselves comfortable in the 100-degree waters. And by “making themselves comfortable,” I mean stripping their clothes off.
About a year ago I was bathing in this hot spring, floating on my back and kicking my legs around in the warm water, trying not to look at my naked friends. Never before was direct eye contact so important in casual chitchat. I wondered, glancing up at my roommate, how clothes were of such little importance out there in the hills and yet, at home, a surprise encounter in the bathroom and a quick glimpse of bare skin elicited screams and subsequent apologies. Then, from stage left, comes this other hippie—no clothes, of course. If there had ever been a hippie Ken-doll, this would have been him—he came fully equipped with the accessories: light grey dreadlocks, dog, incense, maté gourd and bombilla. He plopped himself into the water and began to float around, holding his gourd above water and sipping from his metal straw. He looked downright spiritual, and instantly he annoyed me.
It’s not that I don’t like hippies—like I mentioned, my roommate's bare cheeks sat on the side of the pool as well. It’s a certain kind of hippie that really gets under my skin, the self-satisfied, holier-than-thou kind of hippie, the kind that drones on about the natural world, peace, love, babies, flowers and ideals. This guy had that air about him, and when he began to speak the air became a solid formation in my mind, a visible cloud of his own stink. Another squatter had inquired about his gourd—at the time quite an atypical sight—and the hippie seemed all-too eager to explain his contraption to the unenlightened folk. “Oh, this? It’s yerba maté,” he answered, painfully careful in his authentic pronunciation. Yierrrr-bah mahhh-tay. “It’s a South American green tea, and it’s highly stimulating, but it doesn’t have any caffeine. It has mateine.” Mahhh-teine. He carried on with his facts, but I had already turned my back to him and was looking at my two roommates, whose eyes and knowing smiles awaited my arrogant corrections. I fought them back—what sense is there in disenchanting a hippie?—but said to them under my breath, “You know guys, I’m not going to say anything, but maté is not a green tea, it is an herbal tisane, a member of the holly family. It does have caffeine—‘mateine’ is caffeine, it was thought at first to be its own xanthene but since people have found out that it is, in fact, the same compound…” I might have continued, but my roommates were laughing at me.
That’s usually what happens when people start talking about tea around me. I become holier-than-thou. There are almost always corrections in my head, and if I like the person speaking generally I will engage in the conversation and begin to tell them all I know. If the speaker annoys me, like our hot spring hippie, I’ll keep my wisdom to myself and meditate silently on how stupid that person is.
And then there was the tea-talk of last night, on my friend’s couch. The subject again was maté, ever increasing in popularity amongst the young crowd and becoming more and more common in everyday conversation. He said that he drank it out of a “guampa”—a guampa? A gourd, I asked?—and that he didn’t usually take it hot. He drank it the way his family had in Paraguay, and in fact they didn’t even call it maté. What did they call it? His brow furrowed as he tried to remember the name, which had been overtaken by the common use of the term maté and misplaced among his childhood memories. A text was sent to his brother, likely sleeping and unlikely to solve our mystery. I giggled. I’ll google it, I said. Maybe it was something other than maté. No. We tried to brush off the subject and move onto other pressing matters, you know, the kinds of things that friends talk about while slung over a comfortable couch in the evening time, but I could see his thoughts pulling back every few moments, his eyes flicking over to his cell phone. And then, all of the sudden and nearly a half hour later:
Tereré, as Wikipedia has informed me this morning, is the typical way that maté is consumed in Paraguay. Actually, I should take care not to use the word ‘maté’ here, but rather ‘the herb’. As it turns out, ‘maté’ literally means ‘gourd,’ the vessel from which the hot version is enjoyed, and thereby only refers to 'the herb' when drunk in this fashion. Its cold version, tereré, is made up of the same leaves but is drunk from a horn, called a guampa. It is not only consumed cold, but is infused cold—no hot water necessary. Hmm. So this morning, I scooped some fresh leaves of ‘the herb’ into a cup, added ice, poured cold water over the top and waited to see if the liquid changed color, and how it would taste.
Well I’ll be, I thought, as I sipped the sweet, grassy, light green liquid; I did not, do not, know everything after all.
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The first time I tried chai was in the kitchen of my parent’s house, and served by my younger sister. “You have to taste this—” she insisted, pushing a mug across the countertop to me. She refused to elaborate on its contents. The flavors, she said, would speak for themselves.
The quality of water affects the taste of your tea; this is beyond dispute. The relative quantities of mineral salts, oxygen and trace elements determine the relative "liveliness" or "flatness" of a particular cup. To that simple substance we add the basic flavor of the leaf itself or an herbal substitute.