What has the strength of coffee, the health advantages of tea and the appeal of chocolate? That’ll be yerba mate, the traditional South American beverage. Read on to learn how to make yerba mate tea and where it comes from – and be sure to follow the etiquette section if you want to know how to drink it like the Argentinians do.
The world has six frequently consumed legal stimulants: coffee, tea, kola nut, cocoa, guarana and last but not least, yerba mate – the most balanced while delivering vitality and nutrition.
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Pronounced “yer-bah mah-tay,” this drink comes from the leaves of a holly plant found in the South American rainforest. Paraguay’s Ache Guayaki tribe has sipped yerba mate from gourds for hundreds of years for its rejuvenating qualities.
The Pasteur Institute concluded in 1964 that with 24 vitamins and minerals, along with 15 amino acids and antioxidants, it would be difficult to find another plant that could equal mate in nutritional value.
Yerba mate is thought to have been initially consumed by the indigenous people of southern Brazil. Through Spanish colonization, the drink spread to the territory of Paraguay in the late 1500s before traveling to Argentina in the 1600s. As use extended farther, mate became Paraguay’s chief commodity.
Around the 1650s, Jesuits domesticated the plant and organized plantations in Misiones, Argentina. A trade war with Paraguayan harvesters started, which led to the Jesuits getting kicked out in the 1770s. They took their domestication secrets with them, and their estates fell into ruin. When Paraguay stopped harvesting mate following the War of the Triple Alliance in the 1860s, Brazil regained its spot as the top mate producer.
Sometime in the 1900s, Argentina domesticated mate again, and plantations were established. While Brazil turned its attention to coffee in the 1930s, Argentina built on its mate consumption and resurrected the Misiones Province economy, where the Jesuits had their plantations.
The tools for making and drinking mate are simple: a hollow gourd, a thermos and a metal straw. While the gourds were traditionally a hollowed calabash, they now come in various materials, including wood, glass, ceramic and even silicone.
The straw – or bombilla – has a screened filter on one end to keep out any small bits of leaves left from the brewing process.
People throughout Argentina, including the capital, Buenos Aires, are often seen walking down the avenida (avenue) carrying a mate-filled termo (thermos) under their arms. The city’s numerous hot-water stations, where you can refill your termo, are in high demand, as the nation’s annual mate consumption averages nearly 14lb (6kg) per person.
Here’s how to prepare mate:
Fill a cured mate cup just over half full with yerba mate. Tilt the gourd until the tea covers the side and almost reaches the top.
Before putting the straw in, pour hot water onto the bottom half of the drink. A temperature of 140-158F (60-70C) is best.
Relax while the yerba mate leaves absorb the water. This awakens the tea.
Put the filtered end of the mate straw into the tea at an angle.
Pour hot, not boiling, water into the yerba mate tea and drink.
Mind your manners
If someone offers you their mate, it’s a sign of respect, and there’s a standing etiquette to sharing mate. It’s not just an opening to learn more about Argentine society but also the person offering to share. There’s a kind of ritual sharing that happens, which can make even a tourist feel like they truly belong. When someone offers to share their mate, simply enjoy it and drink it all before handing it back. Don’t rush; drink at your own pace.
If you’re finished and don’t want seconds, say “gracias” as you hand the gourd back. If you want another serving, hold off on the thanks and wait until someone offers you more.
In a large group, the mate will make the rounds, but only one individual is responsible for that. The person who makes the mate is called the cebador. When the mate is ready, the cebador takes the first serving and refills the gourd. Then, handing the gourd to the next person, the cebador waits while the person drinks and passes the empty gourd back. In a large enough group, two gourds may be circulating, but the process is the same: take, drink, return.
For more on the history, making and etiquette of mate, take a look at Circle of Drink.
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