In the night is a monthly series exploring China’s vibrant nightlife and the roster of young people who make parties so fun in the country. This month, we feature how Club-Mate and other non-alcoholic mate drinks are helping to energize the live EDM scene in China.
Despite challenges caused by Covid, frequent repressionsand soaring rents for theaters, live electronic music scene in China is alive and well, with local labels break boundaries and dozens of clubs across the country to keep the party going. Mate (pronounced mah tay) soft drinks, canned carbonated herbal beverages derived from a traditional caffeine-rich South American drink made from yerba mate, help fuel the nightly chaos.
Soft drinks with mate extract have found their way into China’s underground music community, especially into the burgeoning techno subculture, where some clubs stock up to 40 cases a month.
Techno brings Party Mate to China
California native Eric Hoang is a party mate enthusiast who plans to launch his own brand of mate soft drink in Shanghai. He tells RADII that the libation is particularly popular with Chinese techno devotees, aware of its ubiquity in Berlin, the promised land of electronic music.
Common practice in Berlin is to order a bottle of Club-Mate – a German brand of mate soft drink, take a sip and return the bottle to the bartender, who then fills the container with vodka or other spirits.
Although Germany has been producing mate drinks since 1898, it wasn’t until Loscher Brewery created Club-Mate in 1994 that the carbonated, caffeinated style of mate drink took off. It didn’t take long for Club-Mate to become a generic brand for all canned mate drinks in the same way that Kleenex is familiar for fabrics in the United States and Canada.
Loscher Brewery’s Club-Mate is the most widely consumed mate drink in the world and is sold in more than 50 countries. That said, small local brands are also springing up in Asia, like Companion Companion in Singapore and the soon-to-be-released Hoang’s brand in Shanghai.
The stimulating properties and subtle flavor of Club-Mate make it a versatile cocktail mixer and an ideal companion for dancing to techno beats for hours on end.
“The techno scene in China is very small,” says Hoang. “Here, all the clubs share DJs, and if a bar manager finds out there’s a certain product in another club, he wants to have that too.”
You’ll rarely find mate soft drinks on most club menus in China, and they aren’t mass-distributed in the country. Even so, the presence of Club-Mate and other Asian brands is ubiquitous in China’s hottest electronic music venues, from Oil in Shenzhen to Heim in Shanghai and Zhao Dai In Beijing. In short, wherever there is electronic music, there is club mate.
“I think one of the reasons it sells so well here is that there are no drugs in China,” Hoang suggests. “Club goers want something to keep them alive, but a lot of young Chinese people don’t drink much alcohol and their tolerance is low.”
Since it looks like tea but works like coffee, the drink is a win-win for Chinese club owners and techno enthusiasts looking to kickstart sluggish feet.
Common discussions with ‘Liquid Adderall’
The origins of mate date back to pre-colonial South America. It was first consumed by the Guaraní people spread across parts of Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, and Uruguay.
In South America, mate is a common drink enjoyed at social events and a sign of friendship. To indulge in mate the traditional way: the leaves of the yerba mate plant are steeped in hot water in a calabash vessel, and the resulting infusion is drunk through a metal straw called bombilla, which also serves as a filter.
The calabash is passed in a circle and filled with boiling water if necessary. If you manage to avoid outbursts and pretend you haven’t burned your tongue, the laid-back ceremony is rewarding for intimate conversations.
If you happen to have a particularly bohemian friend who has spent time backpacking in South America, chances are you’ve heard of — or tried — mate in its traditional form.
When the soft drink version of mate was first introduced in Germany, it wowed a different audience: hackers and technicians.
The secret behind Club-Mate popularity is not its flavor, which some consider an acquired taste, but its wellness chemicalsthat many of us consume daily in the form of coffee, tea or chocolate.
Although Club-Mate contains less caffeine than coffee, Hoang admits to having preferred mate drinks to coffee.
“What really makes the difference is how your body digests caffeine: coffee peaks very quickly whereas mate has a more gradual curve. You don’t get the jittery feeling that coffee gives,” says he.
This “slow release,” which keeps tech experts awake at their computers, is why mate soft drinks have earned the nickname “Liquid Adderall”.
Hold My Tea: The future of Club Mate in China
Browse any e-commerce platform in China and you’ll likely find yerba mate leaves, which are often advertised as a cure for weight loss. Football superstar Lionel Messi has been instrumental in the product’s growing popularity, as it share frequently photos of him and his family drinking with his 6 million Weibo fans.
However, local regulations still prohibit manufacturers from processing yerba mate leaves into finished products such as canned mate drinks. For this reason, almost all non-alcoholic mate drinks sold in China are produced overseas and imported.
According to Hoang, so far only Genki Forest has managed to find a loophole in the regulations and produce mate drinks in the country. For their soft drink, called Alien Energy, the company uses mate extract instead of brewing mate leaves.
He feels optimistic about future regulatory openings as other Chinese companies show growing interest in producing mate soft drinks.
“They want to make this change, but government lobbying is taking a long time. In the meantime, we just have to import,” explains Hoang.
In a nation with thousands of years of tea-drinking history, it is culturally difficult to introduce a new tea-like drink to the Chinese market. “It’s like trying to introduce a new type of coffee to a coffee-drinking country like Italy; there would be some resistance because there is a preconceived idea of what the drink should taste and look like.
Non-alcoholic mate drinks simultaneously face fierce competition from foreign caffeinated beverages that have successfully penetrated the local market, such as Red Bull.
These circumstances explain why mate producers such as Hoang have focused on nightlife and nightlife only.
“Forget everyone else. We want to introduce the drink to people who look like us, people who care about the culture,” he says. “And if other people like it too, well, that’s cool.”
Challenges aside, Hoang is optimistic about the market prospects for mate soft drinks in China.
“The soft drink market in China is growing very rapidly. While most people in the countryside still stick to their bottles filled with hot water and green tea, many middle-class people are developing a taste for soft drinks,” he shares.
In a country where young people take their health in their hands, a low-sugar, low-caffeine energy drink does the trick. Chinese clubbers have certainly given him their backing.
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