Ahoy, Maté!

Three Jerseyans bet on healthful yerba maté (mah-TAY) as the next green tea.

The three friends—budding entrepreneurs with lucrative jobs in the financial world—believed that organic food was going to be big. They just didn’t know what the right product was. So in July 2006, Tom Wollmann, from Florham Park, and Noah Krinick and Ariel Nelson, boyhood pals from Englewood, went to Argentina on vacation to think it over.

As soon as they hit the streets, they saw people sipping a drink in a hollow gourd through a metal straw. “It was impossible not to notice,” Wollman says. “It was as pervasive there as talking on the cell phone is here.”

The beverage, they learned, was yerba maté, a tea brewed from the leaves of a local holly tree. South Americans call it the “drink of the Gods,” and little wonder. After researching, Wollmann learned that maté has more antioxidants than green tea, is loaded with vitamins, and has slightly less caffeine than coffee. The combination of caffeine and trace amounts of theobromine, a muscle relaxant, is said to give drinkers “calm energy.”

Convinced that maté could be, as Wollmann says, “more popular than green tea,” the three quit their jobs, pooled their life savings—a few hundred thousand dollars—and launched Bombilla & Gourd, named for the traditional method of steeping the tea in a gourd and sipping it through a bombilla (a metal straw).

They decided to use an organic loose leaf from EcoTeas, an Oregon-based company that imports yerba maté from Argentina. Most Argentines drink maté unsweetened, relishing its slightly bitter, grassy taste. Wollmann likes it that way himself. But the three realized that “bitter, grassy” would never fly in the U.S., so they hired flavor professionals from Moore Labs in Ohio to add natural fruit flavors while keeping the product organic and low in sugar. Then they took their brew to Manhattan gourmet markets and cafés and scored 250 accounts in one week. The first bottles shipped last June.

Bombilla & Gourd is available at Whole Foods and specialty markets in New Jersey. Wollmann projects sales of $1.5 million in the first year. That would barely register a blip in the $2.65 billion ready-to-drink tea market. But he’s counting on “calm energy” working for him. Green tea, virtually unknown in the U.S. market in 2000, last year accounted for about sixteen percent of the total $6.2 billion tea industry.

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