What’s The Tea? Yerba Mate vs. Kombucha

A can of Guayakí yerba mate and a bottle of Brew Dr. Kombucha. Both drinks can be bought at most grocery stores in Portland, and it is up for debate whether or not one is better than the other.
Photo by Abby Emrich

Yerba mate or kombucha? In the age of trendy drinks, like bubble tea and iced coffee, these two are popular and prominent in Portland culture. Many believe that kombucha is better than yerba mate, and some believe the opposite. It’s a heated debate whether or not there is a prevailing drink out of the two, and the pros and cons of each beverage must be weighed in order to ensure an accurate result.

But first, for those who may not have heard of the two, here’s a quick summary of each drink. Yerba mate is a tea drink made from the leaves of a bush typically grown in South American countries like Argentina, Uruguay, and parts of Brazil. Most commonly known and sold in the US as a blend of sweeteners and flavoring, a yerba mate contains caffeine, and antioxidants, which are considered to be one of the drink’s health benefits. The most common brand of yerba mate, “yerb” for short, is Guayakí yerba mate. They also sell variations of the classic yerba mate drink in the form of energy shots. A typical can of Guayakí yerba mate contains about 15 grams of sugar and has a somewhat bitter, dry flavor. Kombucha is also a tea but is processed in a very different way than yerb. Kombucha is an ancient fermented tonic made of herbal tea. This effervescent drink contains a host of healthy bacterias, yeasts, and acids obtained from its main culture, or SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast). Kombucha has a long history of consumption in Asia and Europe, but its origins are somewhat unknown. A typical bottle of kombucha contains anywhere from 5 to 10 grams of sugar. Some brands that are popular in Portland are Brew Dr, Synergy, and Lion Heart.

Let’s start with the pros and cons of yerba mate. For the purpose of this comparison, the type of yerba mate that will be used will be the Guayakí brand, which is the most widely known and streamlined in Portland culture. The first positive of yerba mate is the small caffeine boost. A can of Guayakí yerba mate contains about 10 milligrams of caffeine, compared to kombucha’s much lower caffeine content. Yerba mate provides a quick and flavorful boost without the intense flavor of a coffee. Another plus from yerb is the price. While the average price for a name-brand, high-quality bottle of kombucha is about $5-6, a can of Guayakí is about $3. This drink may be the overall more sustainable one in terms of budget. There are definitely some cons to yerba mate. First, the health risks associated with caffeine, as well as some studies indicating that prolonged consumption of yerba mate could lead to rare cases of mouth, throat and lung cancers. According to Mayo Clinic, yerba mate contains polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are known to be carcinogens. PAHs can also be found in tobacco smoke and grilled meat, but, a direct relation between yerba mate and cancer has yet to be studied more in-depth. Another con of this popular drink are the social connotations that come with walking around carrying a can of Guayakí yerba mate. This brand is generally associated with a certain aesthetic: Portland grunge, indie, hipsters who talk about their record collection a little too much. It is highly subjective whether or not this is a “negative” aspect of drinking yerba mate, but should be mentioned for anyone to take into consideration.

Weighing the pros and cons of kombucha is a difficult task. Those who are kombucha fans swear by it, and those who dislike it aren’t afraid to voice their opinions. The main positive of kombucha is its healthy bacteria that comes from fermentation. Kombucha contains probiotics, which have been linked to digestive help and calming gut inflammation. Consuming kombucha is said to promote good stomach bacteria, but research on the underlying health benefits of the drink are still not fully known. Now for the cons. The number one complaint that beverage connoisseurs have about kombucha is its intense acidic flavor. Many claim the flavor is too overpowering. Some testimonies from non-kombucha drinkers include: “Kombucha is too tingly and every flavor tastes like it was mixed with pond water,” and “kombucha tastes like dirty sink water.” Some even go as far to say that kombucha tastes like “the pee of someone who only drank vinegar.” Kombucha has also been linked to poor oral health, as it is highly acidic and prolonged consumption could possibly wear away at the enamel on teeth.

After weighing the positives and negatives of each drink, the results are in. On whether yerba mate or kombucha is the better drink, the conclusion is…both drinks have their own unique flavors, and it is very difficult to tell whether or not one is superior to the other. Many enjoy the sour flavor of kombucha, and some love the caffeine boost that comes with a yerba mate. Both drinks have an acquired taste. It’s a hard reality to face for those reading this article looking for a definite solution to the long-standing argument. Some won’t even go for a yerb or kombucha but will choose more artificial drinks like Red Bull or soda. It will always be easier to opt for the cheapest, safest and guaranteed healthiest option: water.

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