MateVeza's Deliciously Hop-Free Beer

A beer without hops is strange enough. Make it pink, and you're asking for trouble. Unless you're MateVeza. The company's IPA and Black Lager are, first, excellent beers, and second, brewed with yerba mate, the South American herbal tea.

The newest release, Morpho, adds bay leaf and hibiscus flowers (hence the hue) in partnership with Mill Valley Beerworks. It's a gruit, an ancient style of beer made without hops. Chances are you've never seen or tasted anything like it: an earthy, spicy bitterness from mate and bay, with a tropical nose and tart finish from hibiscus. (There's caffeine in it — about 60 mg — but since it gets there naturally, MateVeza avoids the government crackdown on Four Loko clones.) Morpho is available in special-edition, 22-ounce bottles, starting this week. I spoke with Jim Woods, the mind behind MateVeza, about brewing with mate and why a pink beer named after an alcohol-loving butterfly might be the best thing you taste this summer.

How'd you get interested in mate, and when did you start brewing beer with it?

My cousin went to Argentina and he introduced me to mate. I was instantly hooked. All through college I'd sit at the table with my books, a mate gourd, and a thermos of hot water. I attribute my good grades to my mate habit. I'd drink mate till around four, then at five I'd open a beer. Mate sticks on your palate, and I remember drinking a Sierra Pale Ale, and the flavors really worked together. It's like a robust, fuller-flavored green tea. In a beer, it dries things up, gives it an earthy herbalness. I started home brewing with mate, and I tried lots of styles. Honey mate—like tea with honey. A mate-weizen. And I tried different methods, like a mesh bag in the hot liquor tank, in the kettle. The best way I found was to add it to the mash.

When did you start making MateVeza professionally?

At first I thought it could be a product extension for someone else. I talked to Jim Shipman at Redhook, but he told me to do it myself. So I went to work on the brand identity, and did some research on where to brew it. I learned that some craft brewers were making organic beer, and I thought that would resonate with people who were buying mate at Whole Foods, for example. It wasn't "me-too" kind of organic; it was something no one else was doing.

I found Butte Creek in Chico. They had a 40 barrel system. I started brewing there under the MateVeza label. At the time I was working for DeutscheBank in commercial real estate. That let me dip my toe in the water, so to speak. We had a soft launch in November of 2006. But Butte Creek was growing and it was difficult to get tank time. So I switched to Mendocino Brewing. [Butte Creek closed soon after that.] I took the original pale recipe, and turned it into a golden. Then I made an IPA, and the black lager came out in April, 2010.

Is it hard, when you're brewing with mate, to get government approval?

Anytime you use a unique ingredient, you need to file a statement of process. So I said I was using yerba mate, and the TTB came back and said that wasn't "Generally Recognized as Safe." After a few days of tearing my hair out, I realized that it was on their list, but under its Latin name. They also made me change the label from saying "naturally caffeinated" to "naturally caffeinated from mate."

How did Morpho come about?

I met the founders of Mill Valley Beerworks when I went in to sell them my beer. But it turned out [co-founder] Justin [Catalana] went to UCSD, and that was one of my first accounts. MateVeza did incredibly down there, and Justin told me he drank a ton of it; they used to kill a keg in a day. So he said, let's collaborate. He had been brewing with bay leaves a lot — he called it his botanical line. Dr. Fritz Briem has a "historical line" and they use bay leaf. That was Justin's inspiration. We started with just mate and bay, but I felt like it was a two-legged stool. It needed more of a sharp edge. What about something tart? So we tried hibiscus. It felt kind of summery, so we added some wheat.

It's a pink beer, with no hops. There's a butterfly on the label. This could go badly. But we gave it to as many people as we could, and the reaction was overwhelmingly positive. People enjoy beers infinitely more when there's a context. It's a refreshing direction for beer, I think. It's like a science experiment.