EcoTeas is an organic tea company that started out in a small house on Fifth Street in Ashland’s Railroad District back in March of 2000. Childhood friends Stefan Schachter and Brendan Girard began blending loose yerba mate flavors in their kitchen and serving them at farmers’ markets and festivals. Then one day, they managed to get their products onto the shelves at ShopNKart. From those humble beginnings, the company has blossomed into a national presence in the natural foods industry. Year after year, their 1 pound bag of loose yerba mate is among the top-selling organic tea products in the country. These days, the company is still small, consisting of three owners, two amazing employees, and an Argentina partner who handles exportation of their main product, organic yerba mate.
What is Yerba Mate?
Yerba mate is an herbal tea derived from the leaves of a South American holly tree, Ilex paraguariensis. It is pleasantly stimulating, highly nutritious, and packed with antioxidants. Traditionally yerba mate is enjoyed through a special filter-tipped tea straw called a bombilla. Many North Americans prepare our loose yerba mate in a French press or coffee maker, and drink it just like coffee.
When did the company first get established and what was the inspiration?
Founder Stefan Schachter first learned about yerba mate during his travels as a teenager in Latin America. Starting a yerba mate company seemed like a great idea to him, since it combined many of his life passions: organic agriculture, travel, healthy living, and fair trade.
How has Ashland helped to be a home base as your company has grown?
Ashland has been a great place to start a business. The local support has been amazing. Even though we’ve achieved national distribution, we still sell more tea in ‘97520’ than any other zip code in the country. The local cafes and grocery stores have all been super supportive. Sanya, (the tea buyer at the Co-op) is always willing to let us test-market our new product ideas on her shelves. Also, Ashland is only a half-day’s drive away from two major markets, Portland and the Bay Area, so in the early years we were able to maintain a high quality of life and still have access to all those customers. From our initial success in Oregon and Northern California, we were able to springboard into national distribution.
What are the stimulants in Yerba mate and how does it help energize the body?
Many people find the stimulation in yerba mate less jittery than coffee. Yerba mate contains a balanced array of stimulants: caffeine, theophyllene (also found in green tea), and theobromine (also found in chocolate). The stimulants work together with abundant B vitamins, minerals, and amino acids to give a balanced, whole-body lift. Also, a tea bag of EcoTeas yerba mate provides 60% more antioxidant power than green tea. Our loose yerba mate provides up to five times the antioxidant power of green tea.
Yerba mate raises metabolism. It is a thermogenic herb, which means it actually induces the body to burn calories. People who wish to safely manage their weight or enhance their athletic performance choose yerba mate for its nutritious natural energy.
Can you talk about the difference between selling organic and being organic, some of the values that have gone into the company you have created?
A lot of companies have started selling organic products because they’ve noticed it’s a growing trend.
What’s more, a lot of really big corporations have begun buying up all the organic food companies out there so they can preserve their market share. These are the companies that are “selling organic.” When we say we “are organic,” we mean that we, as the owners and employees of this company, grow organic vegetables in our backyards, buy organic clothing, and truly believe in the organic movement. We didn’t get into organic products to promote our business. We got into business to promote organics products.
How is Yerba Mate grown? What has typically been the condition of the farmers and how does this tie into Fair Trade?
Yerba mate is grown in a wide variety of ways. There are huge mechanized plantations that control weeds using chemical herbicides. There are also tiny subsistence growers who set aside a few acres to grow enough yerba mate to make a small amount of cash. Our farm partners are somewhere between these two extremes. They still use machetes to harvest the yerba and control weeds. They are entirely organic. But they are big enough to produce a large volume of consistently high-quality yerba mate, which is vital for our business. The fair trade certification has formalized a lot of the relationships and dynamics that were already in place: consistent pricing, good working conditions, etc. Finally, the process led to the development of a special fund that the workers get to use to improve their community in any way they see fit.
Can you talk a little bit about your new organic and fair trade certification?
We’ve been certified organic since our inception. Our recent Fair Trade certification is a nice addition to that. For a long time, there were no certification agencies willing to certify yerba mate as fair trade. Recently, a Swiss group called IMO (Institute for Marketecology) inspected our farm partners in Argentina and our North American operations and granted us the “Fair for Life” status. This means that they’ve verified a lengthy set of criteria from working conditions to fair pricing to environmental stewardship. We are happy to finally have a third-party certification to back up our message to consumers.
You guys are now becoming a top seller all around the country for this eco tea? What’s it feel like and what are you excited about?
We are excited about spearheading a trend toward drinking more loose tea. All of our new product ideas for 2010 and beyond involve loose tea. It may seem like a small detail, but buying loose tea is a wonderful step toward running a more sustainable household. Along with the huge reduction in packaging material and freight costs, the consumer gets a better deal and higher quality, and the farmers get paid more (instead of that money going to factories). Last but not least, brewing loose tea encourages experimentation through the opportunities for gardening and wild-crafting herbs to add to your tea!
Where can someone buy or try a Yerba Mate drink locally?
You can try a hot cup of EcoTeas yerba mate at the Co-op’s deli bar. It’s always on tap there in one of the press-pots. You can also get a bottle of iced yerba mate from Honest Tea. Their Sublime Mate is particularly tasty. We brainstormed that flavor with Honest Tea’s western sales manager during a winter ascent of Mount Mclaughlin. They use our yerba mate as the main ingredient in it.
What the heck is a bombilla?
A bombilla is a straw with a filter on the bottom end. You add it to a cup filled with hot water and loose tea, and sip through the straw. The filter keeps the tea leaves out of your mouth.
Any last thoughts or messages to the community?
Thanks for all the support over the years!
Learn More at: EcoTeas.com