Yerba Montana puts national drink of Argentina on local shelves

Mackay Pierce, founder of Yerba Montana, looks to grow his Missoula-based business blending the national drink of Argentina to local connoisseurs. (Missoula Current)

The health benefits of yerba mate are no secret to the people of South America, where residents have long sipped the leafy infusion from small gourds to gain the drink’s energy-boosting powers and vitamins.

But when Mackay Pierce mentions the drink in Missoula, more often than not he gets a puzzled look. That could change as Yerba Montana gains traction and finds its place on the shelves of local retailers.

“It’s the national drink of Argentina – the people down there have been drinking it for about 600 years,” said Pierce. “It’s one of the most nutritious plants known to man.”

On a recent Friday evening, Pierce sipped his blend of yerba mate from a gourd through a siphoning straw. The odd concoction appeared as unfiltered tea, the leaves, stems and powder all packed into the small container and doused with a splash of water.

“It’s got about 70 percent of the caffeine as coffee and has pretty much the whole D vitamin complex, which is good for energy,” he said. “It has about twice the antioxidants as tea, plus a whole bunch of different minerals. It can actually sustain life if there’s a food shortage. It gives you a nice, sustained energy boost and it’s less acidic than coffee, so it doesn’t hurt your stomach or make you jittery.”

Pierce, who studied history at the University of Montana, encountered the product through his sister. She was a foreign exchange student in Argentina and, upon her return, she handed Pierce a gourd infused with yerba mate and told him to try it.

He did and wasn’t impressed, at least at first.

“I said I don’t think I’d ever drink that again – it was way too bitter and strong,” he said. “But the effects really got to me and I really started liking it.”

His idea for a business was born.

Pierce began to drink the herbal tea on a regular basis, but quickly found the cost somewhat prohibitive. He turned to the Internet and compiled a long list of suppliers and began selling small packages around town.

By 2013, he turned to Blackstone LaunchPad at UM and took a deeper look into developing a business based upon the South American drink. He officially launched Yerba Montana in 2015 and has been growing it ever since.

“We’re blending our own yerba for different purposes,” said Pierce. “All the vitamins, nutrients and antioxidants are concentrated in the leaf. The stems add a different flavor. In Argentina, there’s around 50 different varieties and blends.”

According to Pierce, yerba mate is found in parts of the South American rainforest. The plant and its healing qualities were discovered centuries ago by the region’s indigenous people, who passed it down though generations as a gift from the gods.

In parts of South America, the herbal tea is more popular than coffee, and in the U.S. it’s often billed a substitute for coffee drinkers by providing a more balanced energy boost. Yerba Montana currently sells three varieties sourced from Argentina, including traditional organic, premium organic and pure leaf.

Pierce said he continues to hone the product, its packaging and distribution as yerba mate catches on.

“One issue we have is shelf fit at the grocery store, so I’m trying to dial in my packaging a little bit,” said Pierce. “We want to make it air tight, so when you crack it open you get a whiff of the yerba mate. I want to start blending in some local wild crafted herbs as well, like yarrow and lavender.”

Pierce said the product can be purchased directly through Yerba Montana or at local coffee shops and grocery stores.

“We also sell to a lot of the kombucha companies around the U.S., and on Amazon as well,” he said.