It’s more caffeinated than coffee, contains less sugar than Red Bull and is beloved by insomniacs all over the globe. It’s the drink of choice for groups that need to stay up late, including hackers and Berlin ravers. And it’s hard to like--its German slogan roughly translates into a shrugging challenge to the drinker: “One gets used to it” (Man gewöhnt sich daran).
This magical drink is called Club Mate, and you probably haven’t heard of it. While the drink, a sparkling yerba mate soda is ubiquitous in its native Germany, and is sold in countries from Iran to China, it’s virtually unknown in most of the US--except in rare, tech-centric pockets like San Francisco, where it’s become an increasingly common sight.
There’s nothing new about yerba mate: it’s been consumed in South American countries since at least the 17th century. People typically drank the leaves of the yerba mate tree--a member of the holly species--as a tea. Mate’s popularity slowly grew worldwide, and according to Club Mate lore, the drink was first produced as a Bavarian regional speciality starting in the 1920s.
In 1994, mid-sized brewery Loscher Brauerei bought the rights to the drink and rebranded it as Club Mate. In the 90s, it grew popular in post-reunification Berlin and became a staple at both nightclubs (where it was mixed with vodka and Jägermeister) and hackerspaces, and slowly spread throughout Germany.
Playing into its underground reputation, the company has had avoided advertising, relying on word-of-mouth to encourage its rise in the hacking world. Now a staple at international tech conferences, it’s the latest in long line of drinks--including Jolt Cola and Mountain Dew--adopted by programmers desperately trying to stave off tiredness as they code into the night. Occasionally, there’s been a crisis: in 2011, the supply chain broke down because people didn’t return their bottles, leading to what fans referred to as the “Matecalypse.” Now, it’s so pervasive in German tech circles that in an October episode of Showtime’s Homeland, the Berlin hackerspace the characters visit is conspicuously littered with bottles of Club Mate.
“If you’ve been to Berlin, Club Mate is everywhere,” said Andy Isaacson, a programmer and cofounder of Noisebridge, a hackerspace in the Mission. “It’s at every train station, every subway station, every falafel stand--[and] they’ve got falafel stands like the Mission has bacon-wrapped hot dog [stands].”
Isaacson first tried Club Mate in 2007, when he went to Chaos Communication Congress in Berlin, a hacking conference where the drink was omnipresent.
“I went to Berlin and everybody was drinking this weird yellow thing, so I tried it. Six hours later, I realized it was 2 AM and I hadn’t yawned once,” Isaacson said. “It has a lot of caffeine, so it gives you that up, it helps your brain work better for a little while, but it doesn’t have as much sugar and the flavor isn’t as syrupy as American soda. I find that it’s a smoother high. It doesn’t have as much of a kick and a drop as you get with soda like Coke or Jolt.”
Since then, he’s imported pallets of the stuff, and its presence at Noisebridge has introduced others to the drink (there’s a whole article on the Noisebridge wiki about importing it)--and inspired them to create their own version.
During the early days of Noisebridge, enterprising hackers, sick of the economic and ecological costs of shipping the drink from Germany, started to develop their own version. They called it alternately sudo pop and sudo mate, and posted the recipes for it--a “substitute for this benighted continent,” as Isaacson calls it--online.
Noisebridge and the cross-pollination of the San Francisco and German hacker scenes helped propel Club Mate’s presence in San Francisco. Currently, there are only two distributors in the US: one in New York and one in San Francisco.
It’s also the drink of choice for Berlin startups opening up locations in San Francisco. Instead of the typical Red Bull or Diet Coke, it’s now Club Mate and it’s sleek label featuring an enigmatic gaucho being stocked as startup fuel.
EyeEm, a photo sharing app, is headquartered in Berlin, and was used to stocking Club Mate. And so when they opened up their San Francisco outpost, they knew they wanted to offer it to their staff. One day, Markus Spiering, EyeEm's Chief Product Officer, started talking to his Uber driver, and discovered the driver was also a Club Mate distributor. The company now has a steady supply of the drink. Lisbeth Ortega, EyeEm SF’s blog editor describes it as "like mate tea, but sweeter and really refreshing with ice."
Part of the Club Mate’s allure is also its rarity and sheen of international hipness--after all, you can already get a soda-like yerba mate from Sonoma County’s Guayaki at stores throughout the Bay Area. The website for the SF Club Mate distributor lists only two locations. One, The Fizzary, closed this year, and the other, Mike’s Liquors, says they’re currently out of stock and don’t know when their supplier will get more.
I finally tracked down a bottle at the New Grand Lake Market in Oakland (filled with everything from authentic New York seltzer to locally made absinthe) where it wasn’t shelved with the other yerba mate--a fridge full of yellow cans of Guayaki--but behind the counter, underneath the vodka and whiskey and next to a hemp soda.
The cashier was excited for me, telling me how he used to drink two Red Bulls per day until he switched to Club Mate. He feels much better now, he said--it’s a lot less sugar.
So, what does it taste like? I’m not a fan of energy drinks and have embarrassingly low tolerance for most caffeine supplements: coffee gives me a stomachache, soda makes my teeth hurt, and Red Bull makes me gag. But I was pleasantly surprised by Club Mate. Its sweetness is tempered by its herbaceousness, and it’s appealingly fizzy, with a pleasant buzz that kept me focused for hours. Indeed, one does get used to it.