A Cal Poly brewed cup of tea

Bridget Veltri

Alex Pryor and David Karr do not take cream and sugar with their tea. The Cal Poly alums prefer their brew from deep in the jungle, and thanks to Pryor’s senior project they are now bringing it to you in a way that is helping sustain the world.

Yerba mate tea may be from South America but the Guayaki tea company has its roots in San Luis Obispo.

“Being from Argentina I grew up drinking mate almost everyday so when I came here I brought it, taking it to class and the study sessions, it is a great study friend as well,” Pryor said. “I did my senior project in the different forms of presenting yerba mate to different markets. It was geared toward how we can present it to the markets I went a little bit into the nutritional aspects of it, but the focus of the thesis was more food science.”

The name Guayaki honors the indigenous people that inhabited the Atlantic forest. Pryor and Karr founded Guayaki in 1996, and their products hit the shelves in 1997. The two met in 1995 at what was once Peat’s Southside café when they were seniors at Cal Poly. Pryor, originally from Buenos Aires, Argentina had grown up drinking mate and brought it with him to the states and introduced it to his friends, eventually selling it to a local natural foods store as his senior project.

When international business major Karr met food science major Pryor he also met mate.

“We were friends before anything, we started hanging out and surfing, Alex introduced it to me,” Karr remembered. “I had a life changing experience with mate. I grew up with allergies, and they told me I was allergic to everything green. And every time I drank mate with Alex I noticed that my allergies were extremely relieved. I met this guy who passed me this really strong gourd and we became friends.”

Karr had started up a computer business in town when Pryor asked if he wanted to work with him.

“The most important thing is he is a close friend and understood the values of not only mate, but starting a market driven business.”

Alex wasn’t reluctant about leaving the computer business.

“I was more passionate about mate at that point then I was computers. So I spoke to my partners, got out of that, and went into business with Alex,” Karr said. “I was open and ready at the time and threw myself into it with reckless abandon.”

“We launched it, just the two of us, and now we have seven major partners that are actively involved,” Pryor said.

All of Guayaki’s products are yerba mate-based and come from South America.

“Everyone tries to claim mate in South America,” Karr said

Guayaki gets their yerba mate from the Atlantic forest which has been singled out by Conservation International as one of the top sites as priority conservations because there is very little of it left.

“The 7 percent the remains is one of that most bio diverse forests because of its large populations of animals and birds,” Karr said.

Those who drink Guayaki are helping to save this forest.

“One of the things that Alex and I were really passionate about is we didn’t want to just create a business, make money, and give back a percentage of our profits. We wanted to do was create a new business model, and then that model would drive restoration and social development programs,” Karr said. “We build in the cost of fair trade, organic, restoration programs into the price of the product, so all they have to do is buy it and those who trust us automatically know that they are driving these things.”

Those who buy Guayaki don’t have to be an environmental enthusiast or conscientious person to enjoy their mate. But by drinking Guayaki they will be helping the Atlantic forest whether they like it or not.

“You don’t have to have any social or restorative goals,” Karr said. “But that will be happening anyway.”

“We are living in a both a climate and economic crisis.”

Pryor said that we need to find a balance with our natural resources and he thinks that Guayaki does just that.

“With the Guayaki business model we are trying to strike a balance. The consumer is participating in the change through the consumption,” he said. “I think one of the problems in society is the high consumption of products that are depleting the natural resources, we need to start consuming products that restore the natural resources while at the same time are empowering communities and education.”

Yerba mate is primarily used as a health stimulant. It has the same amount of caffeine as coffee if you brew it strong, and is becoming quite the buzz beverage with growing popularity in the United States.

Karr described mate as a healthy nourishing alternative source of caffeine.

“It’s gentle,” Karr said. “It’s like wheat grass with caffeine; all the nutrients buffer the effects of caffeine.”

Guayaki mainly uses two varieties of air dried mate, Traditional and San Mateo.

“Basically two varieties that are packaged on the market traditional and San Mateo, San Mateo is what we use to make all of the other products.

Guayaki was much more than a business opportunity for Karr. He was enchanted by the rich culture history of mate, the hospitality it represents and his own positive personal experience with the product.

“It was the romance of mates’ history and tradition and my personal experience with the product,” he said. “Mate has a connection to the land and people that is similar to the process of making wine. I realized that it could be a grown in harmony with nature and the importance of its ties to the cultural heritage of the people that lived in those areas, much like wine is.”

“It’s true yerba mate has a very strong symbolism, it represents our culture and hospitality,” Pryor said. “The moment someone invites you to their home they will offer you mate.”

Pryor gave an example of how a tea can represent these things. He recently went to renew his passport in a government building in which no one was particularly excited to be working or in line in. He noticed that all of the public employees had no personal items in sight except for the thermos and gourds that mate is drank out of.

“I was impressed because everyone had their thermos or gourd with them, I had brought mine too because I was going to be waiting in line.”

Pryor said that when the employees realized that he too was drinking mate, the mood changed and dialogue began.

“The conversation changed ‘oh you are drinking mate how do you like it?’ It’s incredible how it is involved in our culture and everyday life,” he said.

You don’t have to have a traditional gourd to enjoy Guayaki’s loose-leaf mate, the tea can be brewed in a French press or coffee maker. If loose-leaf is not your style, Guayaki also has mate tea bags in seven flavors.

Currently Guayaki can be found in both the United States and Canada.The company may have started in San Luis Obispo but has since moved north.

In addition to being located in the midst of one of their best markets, Guayaki has opened their first mate bar in Sebastopol.

“It’s really nice you can walk in and have a mate late,” Pryor said.

The small town of Sebastopol is environmental management and production senior Megan Paladini’s hometown, and while she isn’t a big tea drinker she has noticed Guayaki’s presence in when she visits home.

“It is right on the main street and looks so inviting,” she said. “It is located in a somewhat industrial building, but they have made the building look just like their label.”

Nutrition senior Lindsey Mitchell agrees that the label is appealing.

“The box just looks like it has a good vibe,” she said.

Mitchell has traveled in South America and even though she is a coffee girl by nature she still enjoys mate.

“My experiences with mate are really fun,” she said. “Just hanging out on the porch with a group passing around a gourd, socializing.”

This tea may come from abroad but it can be found at several stores locally.

Shannon Koester, general manager at Gus’s Grocery in San Luis Obispo,the shop said carries four of the seven flavors offered of Guayaki’s bottled mate.

“We try to cater to the student population and see what they are going to drink,” she said. “It sells really well, we go through two to three cases a week.”

Koester is glad that Guayaki is selling well because of the local connection.

“I realize that it isn’t a local company anymore, but the fact that the founders graduated from here (Cal Poly),” she said. “I like the fact that it is organic and a lot of the flavored beverages out there aren’t.”

Guayaki can also be found on campus business sophomore Kunuk Shin tried the mate variety for the first time at Julian’s in the library.

“I ordered it because it was something cold and they didn’t have Italian sodas so it was it was either mango or mate and I don’t really like mango,” he said. “The taste wasn’t very strong, I liked that it was mild.”

Pryor and Karr may no longer reside in sleepy San Luis Obispo but their company is legacy in the town.

Pryor, now back in Argentina, still visits.

“I came to California because of the cultural background, its ethics and environmental awareness,” he said. “I miss the people, I loved the people and really became a part of the community.”

And thanks to Guayaki tea, he still is.