Disclaimer: We sell Guayusa, therefore there may be inherent bias in this article. That said, I have tried to approach this is objectively as possible.
It is important to add, even within each species of plant there can be differences in composition and taste depending on genetic variability and the environment/season in which it is grown. The differences won’t be profound, but they are worth noting.
If you are interested to also see our comparison of Guayusa vs Coffee, click here to open a new tab to read after.
Both guayusa and yerba mate plants are evergreens that grow in different parts of South America from the holly family category of plant species. Both are drunk for the energizing effects of the caffeine content. Both are high in polyphenols and other nutrients making them attractive alternatives to other sources of caffeine, like coffee and energy drinks. They are two of three trees from the holly family that are caffeinated; the third being a tree called Yaupon that grows mainly in the South Eastern United States.
Guayusa and Yerba maté’s scientific names are ‘Ilex Guayusa’ and ‘Ilex Paraguariensis’ respectively. Guayusa sometimes goes by the nickname of “the night watchman”, and yerba maté is often shortened to just ‘maté’.
Both when drunk, are known for providing an energy boost in the form of a sustained release of caffeine; with no sudden crash in mood; as is associated with coffee or energy drinks – when the caffeine wears off. So if you’ve never tried either of these high caffeine teas, both guayusa and yerba mate make a great alternative to coffee. When you taste guayusa or yerba mate, you may never go back.
Both holly trees are shrouded in mythology and considered sacred in the tribes who have cultivated them for millennia, and form a central part of their cultures and traditions.
They are both in the same genus (family) called ‘ilex’ or holly and therefore have many similarities. Yerba maté (Ilex Paraguariensis ) is the national drink of Argentina and is drunk in the region and surrounding countries, Guayusa (Ilex Guayusa ) is mainly grown and drunk in Ecuador, and is known to be less bitter and mellower in taste compared to maté.
Difference in taste?
I’m sitting here with a cup of yerba mate and guayusa side by side. For easy and direct comparison of the leaves, they are both brewed for 10 minutes using 5g of leaf.*0
First thing I notice is that Guayusa smells sweet, mellow and a little grassy. The yerba mate I have is unsmoked and untoasted.
Most yerba mate you find is smoked as that is the traditional preparation. However, since smoking and toasting reduces the nutritional quality*1, we have kept to the all natural ‘green’ yerba mate for a comparison. (Since the smoking of yerba is carcinogenic*2 and toasting reduces nutrition, I will dismiss both of these preparations of mate without further ado.)
With the Yerba mate, first thing I notice is that it smells quite smoky! (despite being unsmoked!) Like a herby BBQ. Smoky unsmoked yerba mate… interesting.
So I take sip of the Guayusa. It reminds me of green tea, maybe an oolong tea. It has a natural sweetness with only the smallest hint of astringency. Kind of grassy/earthy flavors and very smooth.
I move on to the Yerba mate. I take a sip. A hard smoky woody taste hits the top of the mouth. A taste that makes you pay attention, quite a bitter taste. A very slight sweetness is detected lingering in the same spot (or my imagination?), and its over.
After sipping the mate I feel that the term grassy/earthy would be better applied to mate than guayusa. Guayusa’s taste is much mellower in comparison. With yerba, it is almost like you ate some grass. With guayusa there is just hints of that grassiness.
Same test done a week later with extra more detailed observations: the guayusa is full bodied, in the sense it has a thicker mouthfeel than the yerba mate. The mate has a definite thinner mouthfeel combined with a dryness felt on the taste buds and roof of mouth. (Apparently this is to do with high levels of tannins). Based on these observations, and the inherent sweetness of Guayusa, I don’t think it would an entirely subjective statement to say the Guayusa is thoroughly more enjoyable and drinkable. Sorry Maté .
Difference in composition?
The general properties of guayusa tea compared to yerba mate tea are quite similar, see below if you want to know the differences in some of the key chemical properties of these holly trees:
1. Theobromine has been reported in Guayusa to be 0.08-0.25mg/g*3(0.008-0.025%), this is compared to 1.5-3% theobromine content in cocoa beans, 0.02mg/g (0.02%) in green coffee beans, 0.15-0.2% in tea and 0.3% in dried mate. So yerba mate has significantly more theobromine than guayusa, although both guayusa’s and mate’s theobromine is insignificant compared to that in cocoa beans.
2. Caffeine is on average slightly lower in mate compared to guayusa. Mate contains about 1-2% caffeine for the dry weight of the leaves, averaging around 1.5%*3, while we found guayusa contains between 1.9% to 2.4% averaging at 2.1%*4 . (When brewed, the caffeine level of a cup of Guayusa is about 82mg, similar to a cup of coffee. I haven’t managed to measure the caffeine level of yerba mate in the way that I brewed it, but if I was to extrapolate from these numbers, I would estimate 59mg for a cup of mate)
3. Chlorogenic Acids are similar in both mate and guayusa. 26.5mg/g per dry weight in Guayusa compared to 23.8mg/g found in yerba mate.
4. L-theanine is found in low quantities only in Guayusa, although not it appreciable quantities for any significant effect. It is not found in yerba mate at all. L-theanine is often atributed to the calm focus effect of guayusa, although I don’t think this is the case.
There are many finer compositional differences, if I find anything worth mentioning I promise to update it here.
Difference in farming methods
Depending on where you get your mate, the holly tree will be grown in large mono-culture farms or small plots inside the rainforest. Our guayusa is farmed in a chakra agroforestry system, a traditional and sustainable method of farming. As mentioned before, yerba mate leaves are traditionally smoke dried (over burning wood), although some providers are starting to offer air dried mate due to health concerns with smoking. Guayusa is never smoke dried wherever you get it from, traditionally it would have been sun-dried, but due to the growing interest in Guayusa around the world it is now dried gently in large natural gas powered ovens (otherwise known as air drying). This drying process is safe since there are no carcinogenics released in a gas fire.
Yerba mate is known for being the national drink of Argentina. Famously, Lionel Messi drinks it during football matches and training. More and more footballers are adopting it for its nutritional and functional benefits over energy drinks or coffee, including the England Squad*5. Yerba mate grows mainly in Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina, while guayusa grows mainly in Ecuador although wild guayusa can be found as far as Peru and Southern Columbia.
Despite Guayusa having similar benefits and being arguably a lot more drinkable (click here for more about how Guayusa benefits Athletes), it hasn’t approached the same level of publicity as mate. It has a long history however with the communities in the Ecuadorian Amazon Rainforest who have been drinking it for 1000s of years. It wasn’t even legally allowed to be sold in the EU before December 2017, due to it being a ‘novel food’.
Both guayusa and yerba mate are packed with nutrition and are a great source of caffeine for athlete’s and high performers looking to kick start their day, or anyone looking for an alternative to coffee with more health benefits.
Yerba mate may be a more acquired taste compared to Guayusa, but it is worth noting that mate is also typically cheaper than Guayusa. So if you can get used to the taste, mate may be the most economical choice for a healthy source of caffeine. But we aware, that the price economy may be achieved by mono-culture farming methods which are damaging to the environment. With guayusa you can be sure the farms are sustainable.
Note about ourselves: we prioritize sustainability first, and only secondly do we try to give the best value. We would never put preference on a more ‘efficient’ farming method if it means that local people, or the local environment has to pay. But we believe good nutrition should be a right, not a luxury; that’s why providing great value is still important to us, and we work hard to do it.
0* Although mate is traditionally brewed in a gourd with a bombilla, and Guayusa is traditionally brewed using whole leaves in a clay pot. I didn’t think that would be a useful comparison. You can condemn us for cultural appropriation, and in a sense you would be right, although that is not our intention. We simply want to compare how the two leaves compare when brewed under exactly the same conditions, in the kind of conditions we also expect people in the UK would more easily adopt (as avid tea drinkers) without requiring purchase of further accessories. The spread of culture sometimes requires making it easier to access and accept. Like when the christian missionaries made the pagan holidays into Christmas! That said, it’s definitely worth reading about the background of Guayusa, it’s fascinating. Click here to read the story of Guayusa.
1* Toasted Yerba mate has chlorogenic acids of 3.16mg/g of dry leaf, compared to 23.8mg/g for untoasted yerba mate, and 26.5mg/g for guayusa. Comparison of cholorogenic acids in teas.
4* These are results taken from our supplier over 7 different batches of guayusa.