Beloved by club kids, hackers, and anyone else pulling an all-nighter, this German non-alcoholic, energy-boosting brew is now infiltrating Toronto’s coolest bars. So what the hell is it and where can we get some?
1. Club-Mate is Berlin’s signature beverage—and now, it’s hoping to make a splash on Toronto turf.
From the Metro to the dance floors, Club-Mate is Berlin’s darling, much like Toronto takes pride in its Caesars. It’s also pronounced with the proper German inflection, meaning it’s Club-Matah [ˈklup ˈmaːtə] and not a literal club mate, although you could butcher it and face the snickering. Branded in Europe as “refreshing and active,” Mate—in production since 1924—flourished with the explosion of Berlin’s techno scene, allowing those who party hard (and all-night) to refuel—no alcohol necessary. Some enthusiasts will even liken its effects to a cup of coffee—and much prefer it to java—as you’d typically see 9-5ers chugging it on the morning commute. Club-Mate made its Toronto debut last December. “We’re making sure we grow at the right pace,” says Alt Altman, sales director at Club-Mate Ontario, or the man better known as electro musician Digits. You can trace Club-Mate’s local arrival to Altman’s adventures living in Berlin last year, where he became so enamoured with the drink that he worked relentlessly to bring it here. “We’ve started out small just to get a sense of how it might do in Toronto, but [the reception has been] great,” notes Atman. “Club-Mate is known for being an acquired taste—the German slogan literally translates to ‘one gets used to it’—and most of the bars we approached were intrigued enough to give it a try.”
2. So what exactly is Club-Mate?
Technically, Club-Mate is a lightly carbonated soft drink—with a twist. Manufactured in Münchsteinach, Germany (about 500 km south of Berlin), the drink uses a South American jungle tea plant, the yerba-mate, containing caffeine and tannins, which are apparently good for you. This ingredient combination, with a light sprinkling of sugar, makes for a striking flavour profile, hitting a balance between bitterness and astringency with an iced-tea vibe. Make no mistake, though, Club-Mate prides itself on being (relatively) more “health-conscious,” if you’re comparing it to something like Red Bull: each 240 mL serving contains 48 mg of caffeine and 16 g of sugars, clocking in at 75 calories. And zero fat.
3. Club-Mate not only greases the gears of musicians, but also start-up soldiers and the student population.
Case study: SoundCloud, the Berlin wunderkind music-hosting site, is fuelled by music and Club-Mate. Legend has it that turn-of-the-millennium hackers of the annual Chaos Communication Congress (CCC) were responsible for the proliferation of Club-Mate into the club scene, since there was no prior advertising campaign. Last summer, Al Jazeera explored Club-Mate’s hacker love affair, examining how the drink brought the community “together” while noting that, at last year’s CCC, “23,000 bottles of mate drinks were sold to more than 6,000 attendees.” Naturally, the brand wants to replicate this success across North America, with Toronto being the continent’s new start-up hub-of-choice in recent years. Every start-up office I’ve visited in Berlin is crammed with cases of the brown stuff, and a typical shared apartment (including my own) paints a similar scene.
4. Only three Toronto bars currently stock Mate—but the thirst is growing.
Despite being available in 40 countries, you can only indulge your curiosity—or your addiction—at Handlebar in Kensington Market, as well as Bambi’s and Sex Laser, both on Dundas West. But that’s changing soon. (Montreal became the first Canadian city to stock it last summer, with its current stockists climbing to 10.) “They’re cool small bars in the city with a clientele that tends to know about Club-Mate, perhaps because many of them are artists or musicians, or have spent time in Berlin,” explains Altman of the small-scale test market, noting their locations were also a factor that could indicate potential consumer popularity versus, say, King West lounges. “I don’t think there’s a typical Mate customer,” muses Altman. “They tend to be unique characters, like Mate—exactly the kind of people you might find at these bars.”
5. So how do you drink it?
Of course, unlike our Caesars, German efficiency dictates that a Mate cocktail be simple. Typically: just add a shot of vodka, or three. Currently, only 330 mL bottles of original recipe Club-Mate are available in Toronto, compared to the 500 mL bottles available across the Atlantic, where it also comes in several other flavours, including a Mate-Cola mix and a pomegranate mix—which, when mixed with ginger ale and vodka, is the best bottom-shelf drink you will ever have. (Pro tip: You can find a hearty selection of drink recipes, boozy and otherwise, here.)
6. And the consensus? Those who like Club-Mate, really fucking love it. Even if it is a little pricey.
“People tend to come exclusively for [the drink],” says Neil Rankin, the trustworthy barkeep at Handlebar who also runs the Feast In The East nights and sings in the band Gay. “It’s not a crazy top-seller, but it’s been doing pretty well. If people enjoy it, they’ll stand by it.” Indeed, as Altman says, Club-Mate is an acquired taste. After eight months, I still can’t get on board with the traditional concoction. But that’s the running joke with the beverage.
At Sex Laser, the conspicuous and beautifully dark bar that serves Mate as its only non-alcoholic drink, the reaction has been 50/50: “It is definitely a small cult-following thing,” says owner Martin Czechowski. “A lot of people who are really excited and order it tell me about how they tried it all over the world. I’m starting to see people on a regular basis who come just for it.” Although he’ll keep reordering cases as long as it sells (and because he loves it), the high mark-up can be a bit of a deterrent, with vodka-Mates running $7 and a single bottle at $6. (Comparatively, a 500 mL Mate in Berlin will run about $1.50 in grocery and convenience stores, and around $5 in bars and cafes.) “Even though I got this impression people were fighting over it, it’s not selling as quickly as I thought,” admits Czechowski. Since December, he estimates he’s sold about six or seven cases (with 24 bottles per case). Despite pushing the new addition on Facebook and Twitter, when I ask if anyone’s ordered it spontaneously, he pauses: “I don’t think that’s happened. Mate has really only attracted the people who love it.”