Yerba Mate

The custom of drinking mate has its origins with the indigenous Guaraní people, native to the area around modern-day Paraguay and parts of Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil.
Mate is a popular beverage in several South American countries and ubiquitous in Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay. It is made using leaves and twigs from the yerba mate plant, a holly-like shrub, which are steeped in hot water to make mate or cold water to make tereré.

In the romantic mind, the word "mate" (rhymes with "latte") may evoke a pastoral image of gauchos sitting around a campfire on the vast plains of the Pampas, passing the traditional gourd between them, but today drinking mate is a normal part of everyday life for urbanites and small-town folks alike. In fact, mate is so popular that it is the national drink of both Argentina and Paraguay.

Drinking mate has numerous health benefits for both body and mind. The Guaraní people have long recognized its medicinal properties and have been cultivating and drinking mate for thousands of years. The drink is rich in antioxidants, which are linked to a reduced risk of many diseases, and has an abundance of vitamins, including vitamins A, C, and E, and minerals, including iron, calcium, phosphorous, and magnesium. Mate is also popular due to its high caffeine content, contributing to increased energy levels and mental alertness.

Although mate has multiple benefits for the individual, it also creates a sense of community: sharing mate is an important social practice that brings people together. If you study Spanish in Argentina, Uruguay, or Paraguay, there is no doubt that you will be invited to participate in this tradition soon after you arrive, but there are a few things you should know about first.

The rituals associated with drinking mate are rich and complicated. Preparing and consuming the drink correctly is essential. First, specific equipment is required. The container used to drink mate (the mate gourd) is called a mate, cuia, porongo, or guampa, depending on the region. It is traditionally made from a squash called a calabash, which is hollowed out and left out to dry in the sun, but it can also be made of metal, wood, or horn. In addition to the gourd, a bombilla is needed. The bombilla is a metal drinking straw with a filter on one end. It is traditionally made from silver and includes ornate decorations, although more modern varieties are usually made of stainless steel or nickel. Lastly, a termo or thermos is needed to keep the water hot (or cold, in the case of tereré).
Brewing and serving the drink is always left to the cebador, who is commonly the host. The tea is prepared in the gourd by filling it up about two-thirds of the way with dry yerba. Then the gourd is shaken so the bigger pieces of leaves and twigs move to the bottom and the smaller, finer particles make their way to the top, where they won’t clog up the bombilla. Next, it is essential to tilt the gourd so the yerba inside is at an angle. (This will make it possible to keep some of the leaves dry.) Cool or warm water is then poured in the gourd to hydrate the yerba and the bombilla is inserted. At this point, everything is ready for the cebador to properly brew the mate with hot water. It is very important that the water not reach a boil — otherwise, the leaves will scald and lose their beneficial health properties.

Etiquette dictates that the cebador drinks the first brew to get rid of any particles and bitterness while making sure that the mate is fit to drink. The gourd is then passed around in a circle. Each person drinks all of the mate when it is passed to them, then passes the gourd back to the cebador to be refilled and passed along to the next person. If someone in the group does not want to drink any more, they thank the cebador, signaling that they have had enough, and the rest of the circle carries on drinking. The process of refilling the gourd is repeated over and over until the mate become lavado, meaning it has lost its flavor. To make the mate last longer, some of the leaves on top are left dry for as long as possible.

The three basic rules to remember when you are drinking mate are:
1. Do not touch or move the bombilla with your hand.
2. Maintain the order of the circle.
3. Don't say "gracias" when someone passes you the mate, this means you don't want any more. 

Even if you aren’t planning a trip to Latin America any time soon, variations on the mate drink are now sold internationally, including mate blended with citrus fruit extracts, iced mate, and mate smoothies. Most of these alternatives have added sugar to mask the slightly earthy, bitter, and grassy taste of traditional mate and make it more palatable to a wider audience. Mate is an acquired taste; even in countries with a huge mate culture, some people prefer to add sugar or honey to make mate dulce.

The popularity of yerba mate is booming all over the world — it seems that people everywhere are waking up to the benefits of having a mate drink over their usual cup of coffee. Those lucky enough to form part of a mate circle and try the real thing will often end up adopting this special custom for life.