I first tried Club-Mate last March in Germany. “It’s like Red Bull without the sugar or crash,” a Berliner told me. “It’s good for you. Club kids chug it at discos; hackers, in their parents’ basements.” I liked it at first sip: not too sweet. I sipped the carbonated tea in Mauerpark near the art-covered wall and thought, “This is so Berlin.” But when I got back to New York in May, it seemed like Club-Mate was all anyone was talking about. Okay, that and Donald Trump.
Club-Mate (pronounced Club Mah-tay) is a smoky-tasting soda — think burned hay, Earl Gray, and charred sugarcane — infused with the extract of yerba mate. Traditionally served in South America, yerba mate is made from the sprigs and leaves of holly plants. In Brazil, it’s brewed into a caffeinated beverage, then served in a hollowed-out gourd and sucked through a metal straw. Gauchos take mate-drinking social etiquette very seriously. Mate may taste bitter and look like green muck, but it’s considered bad Latin-cowboy manners to refuse a gourd.
The trendy 2017 version of mate is less thick and green, more of a clear, bubbly topaz. Club-Mate is the caffeinated soft drink of choice for the international cyber crowd. Its popularity has been attributed to Deutschland’s Chaos Computer Club, which bills itself as the largest association of hackers in Europe. The fizzy WikiDrink was reportedly brought stateside in 2009 — and anointed the “healthy Red Bull” by the computer anarchist ‘zine 2600: The Hacker Quarterly after making its U.S. debut at 2008 HOPE (Hackers On Planet Earth) conference in New York. If recent clinical studies are to be believed, yerba mate tea has many health benefits — including weight loss and cancer prevention. The soda is said to have similar perks.
Celebrities like it, too: Leonardo DiCaprio ordered two Club-Mates at Berlin Currywurst in Chelsea Market in April, if this receipt is to be believed. Sky Ferreira Instagrammed that the soda is the “BEST THING TO COME TO THE USA SINCE THE BEATLES.”
The filmmaker Ava Warbrick, a Club-Mate enthusiast and denizen of Little Italy, says she always stocks the beverage in her apartment. “All my artist pals who spend time in Berlin like to drink it,” says Warbrick. “It’s delightful. I liked it right away because it reminded me of tea. I don’t drink alcohol, so it’s a lively alternative.” Her sister Lisa loves the stuff so much that for her 30th birthday in L.A. she hosted an “Aquarian Aquarium Mermaid Goth Rave” at the Hungarian Cultural Alliance’s private club Magtár and served Club-Mate exclusively. “One of the members of Daft Punk showed up,” brags Warbrick.
Over the Williamsburg bridge in Bushwick, Brooklyn, Club-Mate swiller Chris Rice lauds the drink for its wellness and alertness benefits. “It pairs perfectly with my daily acai bowl with extra bee pollen,” he jokes. “But really, I like anything that keeps me up, and it’s the healthiest. I prefer not to sleep.” Rice first tried it at the Bossa Nova Civic Club in Bushwick and has been hooked ever since.
Evidently, until three years ago the only place in the five boroughs where you could purchase the pop was Bushwick-scenester club Bossa Nova, where it’s served at the bar for $8. Thanks to a new distributor, Club-Mate is now available at local bars and bodegas. Yerba junkies seem to be buying it in bulk. “People come in and buy 10 to 15 bottles at a time,” says Sam Enab, cashier at North 7th Market near the Bedford Avenue L stop, where the imported Club-Mate goes for a hefty $4.99 a bottle. Lots of sparkling non-alcoholic sodas have gotten hipster cred recently. The Wisconsin-based seltzer brand La Croix became so popular with the cool kids that it merited its own song by rapper Rakeem, a Letter of Recommendation from the New York Times, and was declared the “must-have” drink of the summer of 2016 by Refinery29. But Club-Mate, unlike La Croix, isn’t available at Whole Foods. It’s a little harder to find and has a more in-the-know cult-refreshment status. Still, it’s available if you now where to look. A recent tweet called Bushwick’s DIY alt-arts mecca Silent Barn the “only place in NYC to see punk music, drink Club-Mate, and get a free bible.” The Uncommons, a board-game café on Thompson Street, sells cases of Club-Mate to customers. Bossa Nova club owner John Barclay, who once told Vice that he believed Club-Mate to have “a metaphysical relationship with techno music,” is now peddling his own Brooklyn knock-off “craft soda” called White Label.
The word-of-mouth about German Club-Mate isn’t unlike the early buzz about Austrian Red Bull. Back in the ‘90s, Red Bull’s true bull story was spawned by X-Files–esque conspiracy theories about its contents: that each skinny silver can contained liquid Viagra; that it WAS addictive and a gateway drink to meth; that it HAD the caffeine of 20 espressos; and that taurine — its “secret ingredient” — is bull urine or bull semen or bull testosterone. Red Bull never encouraged the rumors, but the company didn’t discourage them, either.
While Red Bull is for jocks, Club-Mate is for the freaks and geeks. Red Bull got its “wings” promoting extreme-sports competitions and endorsements from gonzo athletes. Club-Mate sponsors hacktivists who require suspended energy for their long hours in front of glowing screens. The brand gained a loyal following among Berlin clubgoers — particularly techno and EDM musicians — but it was the hackers who really allowed the hype to spread virally through the web. The drink’s motto is “Man Gewöhnt Sich Daran,” German for “One gets used to it” — which almost makes sense, given its history. The first batches were brewed under another name “Sekt Bronte” (sparkling mate) 92 years ago in Dietenhofen, a flyspeck village known for a tale about three lost young maidens who follow the sound of a shepherd’s horn. According to company lore, Dietenhofen brewery owner Georg Latteier discovered Sekt Bronte in 1924 while on an expedition in South America. Sekt Bronte became Club-Mate in the 1950s. The soda soon gained a cult following, with customers coming from as far away as Ulm (over 100 miles) and Hamburg (nearly 400) to imbibe. In 1994, Loscher Brewery purchased the company and rebranded it. A single German company produces the beverage, which gained a new global following when hackers sampled Club-Mate en mass at the Chaos Computer Club convention in Cologne. Today many Berlin bars and electronica gatherings offer Club-Mate Specials: barflies can chug half a bottle and get it refilled with vodka. The nerd fan base generally favors a cocktail called “tschunk” or “chunk — Club-Mate and rum or tequila. And Loscher has developed four alternative less smoky-tasting Club-Mate flavors: Cola (Coke-ier), the ruby-colored Granat that suggests pomegranate (my personal favorite), Ice T Kraftstoff (uber-caffeinated), and a special Winter edition (spicy with cardamom and star anise).
The great mystery of Club-Mate legend is its mascot. One Bulgarian blogger even got it tattooed on her side. He wears a poncho, hoop earrings, and a hat roomy enough to house a saguaro cactus. His visage is imprinted on every can. Less a Captain Morgan than a Man With No Name, he has inspired Reddit boards to debate his provenance, to no real conclusion. “I knew you were going to ask about the logo,” says Drew Chin, a Club-Mate U.S.A. distribution exec. “I can’t tell you anything about it or its origins. I wish I could, but I don’t know. I’ve asked all my contacts at the brewery who make it in Münchsteinach, they won’t tell me.” If he were any more anonymous, he’d be wearing a Guy Fawkes mask.
Is Club-Mate “healthier” than other energy drinks? Club-Mate’s website claims it has half the sugar of typical soft drinks like Red Bull and Coca-Cola and “promotes a heightened alertness and relaxation.” The yerba mate high, says Chin, is not “jumpy or anxiety-inducing” like coffee or other energy drinks: It calms and focuses without the big crash. A serving of original Club-Mate contains 100 milligrams of caffeine (a large cup of coffee) and 16 grams of sugar (half a can of Sprite) compared to Red Bull (80 and 40, respectively). Chin says Whole Foods reps couldn’t get past Club-Mate’s sweeteners. “Glucosefructosesirup” is listed as the second ingredient. “It’s actually made with inverted cane sugar,” he says, defensively. “No corn syrup is used.” But sugar isn’t what can make energy drinks dangerous, it’s the caffeine — five-hour energy drinks, which contain zero sugar but twice the caffeine of Club-Mate (200 milligrams versus 100), have been tied to some 100 FDA filings, including more than 30 life-threatening and serious injuries like convulsions, heart attacks, and at least one spontaneous abortion. Last November the FDA busted a counterfeit five-hour energy drink scam ring. If convicted, the defendants face up to 15 years in prison. The potential health risks of energy drinks are many and varied.
So, how “healthy” is this drink exactly? “People have tried to promote yerba mate as a panacea for many conditions — including depression and osteoporosis,” says cardiologist Jennifer Haythe, an assistant professor at Columbia University Medical Center, “Yet there is actually scant evidence supporting its effectiveness in any diseases. There is, however, a link between regular yerba mate ingestion and cancers of the mouth, throat, and esophagus particularly in people who smoke or drink heavily.” Marketers of chewing tobacco face a similar challenge.
On the other hand, Dr. Haythe doesn’t think Club-Mate is necessarily bad for you. It’s “probably fine,” she says, if quaffed in moderation. Up to 400 milligrams of caffeine is safe for the average adult, according to the Mayo Clinic.
When I tried Club-Mate, I found it less jittery and anxiety-inducing than coffee. I didn’t crash. Now that I’ve made peace with the bitter smoky flavor, it’s become my go-to soft drink. While the soda is not “healthy” by any stretch, you do get a lot fewer fidgets for your buck. It’s a fun pop for anyone feeling lethargic, but adventurous. In other words, it’s got good buzz. Drinker beware: The one thing I’ve learned from Club Mating is that — caffeine-lite or not — if you slug back enough of it you’ll get as hopped up as a third-grader on a ‘Quik bender.