Yerba mate has its origins with the Guaraní people, native to the area around modern day southern Brazil and northern Argentina. Learn more about it.
Yerba mate is a popular hot beverage in many South American countries. The drink has its origins with the Guaraní people, native to the area around modern day southern Brazil and northern Argentina. The beverage is produced using leaves from the yerba mate plant, a holly like shrub only found South America, which are seeped in either hot or cold water. A mention of its name often conjures up the evocative image of Gauchos sitting around a campfire on a vast plain passing the traditional yerba mate gourd between them. Drinking yerba mate is an important social practice, similar to going to a coffee shop or having friends around for tea. In fact, yerba mate tea is so popular that it is the national drink of both Argentina and Paraguay.
Drinking yerba mate is recommended by medical experts for its numerous health benefits. The drink is rich in anti-oxidants, which help to fight high cholesterol and obesity, and anti-carcinogens that prevent oral cancer. The yerba mate plant also has an abundance of vitamins and minerals which include iron, calcium and phosphorous.
In addition to the many yerba mate health benefits, it is also popular due to its high caffeine content. Yerba mate caffeine is different from that found in other caffeinated beverages such as coffee or tea. The caffeine in yerba mate affects muscle tissue rather than the central nervous system. The resulting yerba mate side effects on the body including the relaxing of muscles while stimulating the heart and increasing energy levels and mental alertness. The different properties of yerba mate caffeine also avoid the post-caffeine crash associated with consuming too much coffee. Another yerba mate benefit is that it is has a more mild affect on the stomach than coffee due to its slightly alkaline rather than acidic contents.
The rituals and traditions associated with drinking yerba mate are rich and complicated. Preparing and consuming the drink correctly is essential. Firstly, specific equipment is required. The container used to drink mate is known as a yerba mate gourd, which is a hollowed out porongo or cabaça fruit shell that is left to dry in the sun. In addition to the gourd, a bombilla is needed. A bombilla is the yerba mate straw which is traditionally made from silver and includes ornate decorations, although more modern varieties can be made from nickel or stainless steel, both of which are cheaper.
Brewing and serving the drink is always left to the cevador, who is commonly the host. The tea is prepared in the yerba mate gourd by filling it with dry yerba mate tea leaves. They are then shaken in the gourd in a specific manner so that a powdery residue gets separated from the leaves. Cool water is then poured in to re-hydrate the dry leaves; a process that lasts a couple of minutes. The yerba mate is then ready to be properly brewed and hot water is poured into the gourd. It is important that the water is around 70-80 degrees Celsius and not boiling; otherwise the leaves will scold and lose their beneficial health properties. Etiquette dictates that the cervador drinks the first brew in order to get rid of any particles and bitterness while making sure that the mate is of decent quality.
The yerba mate gourd is then passed around to the right among members of the group. When the gourd is empty, it is passed back to the cervador to be refilled before being redistributed again. Once someone in the group does not want to drink any more they pass the gourd back to the cervador and thank them, which implies they have had enough. The process of refilling the gourd is repeated a number of times until the yerba mate tea leaves become lavado, meaning they have lost their flavor. The best quality mate can be brewed over 10 times before losing its taste.
There are now modern day variations the mate drink sold beyond Latin America that use traditional yerba mate ingredients as the base. These include mate blended with citrus fruit extracts, iced mate, and mate smoothies. A lot of these alternatives have added sugar to mask the slightly earthy, bitter and grassy taste of traditional yerba mate and make it more accessible. The booming popularity of yerba mate cannot be ignored, nowadays you can even buy yerba mate seeds to plant it at home and it seems that people everywhere are waking up to the benefits of having a mate drink over their usual cup of coffee.