The Yerba Mate Universe
The background of one of the most popular infusion drinks in Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Southern Brazil
Hello Avatar! When the Spaniards arrived in the Americas they found a range of new products to improve the dull European cuisine of the time: potatoes, chilis, corn, tomatoes, chocolate, cassava... and mate — the list makes you wonder wtf Europeans were eating before discovering the New World. Just imagine Italian pasta or pizza without tomatoes or German cuisine without potatoes.
Cultural origins of this power drink
Originally, yerba mate was known as Jesuit tea or Paraguayan tea. The Káingang, Guarani and Guaycurú peoples were the main consumers who collected ka'a leaves in the Paraná jungle.
The Káingang people collected the leaves on a thread that they tied around their waist, and they ate them throughout the day. Initially they chewed the fresh leaves, and then prepared them in infusion.
Spanish chroniclers documented that the indigenous Guarani population carried small leather bags (guayacas) in which they kept crushed and toasted yerba mate leaves.
They would chew these leaves (a tradition you can also observe in the Andes communities with regards to chewing coca leaves), or place them in a gourd with water and sipping the water.
For this original version of the Paraguayan tereré, the natives would use their teeth as a filter or use a cane joint. These leaves gave them greater resistance for long marches or to carry out daily tasks.
On May 20, 1616, the governor of Buenos Aires Hernando Arias de Saavedra, better known as Hernandarias, prohibited yerba mate in any use and was even denounced before the Court of the Holy Inquisition of Lima.
The infusion ritual practiced by the natives was conceived as a threat to the newly arrived Europeans who were unaware of such a practice and its effects.
Mate drinkers were condemned for being considered "lazy", arguing that this rite paralyzed their ability to work for many hours a day with no other justification than leisure.
This argument still resonates today in a way, especially when you see one dude working somewhere while his other seven colleagues are passing a mate around and chatting. Work will have to wait until the mate round is finished.
Despite attempts to eliminate their use, the Spanish learned about the virtues of the green leaves. Mate consumption spread up to the point of organizing intense traffic from its area of origin to the entire Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata (modern day Argentina + Uruguay and part of Paraguay).
Later on, the Jesuits introduced the crop in their missions distributed in the region that constitutes the province of Misiones, North of Corrientes and South of Paraguay and Southwest Brazil.
The Jesuits were largely responsible for the yerba being known in the old world, where it came to be known as the “Jesuit tea”.
Mate plantations & natural habitat
Yerba mate (Ilex Paraguariensis), is a tree native to the Paraná Jungle, an area which is shared between Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil.
In the wild, mate plants can reach a height of between 12 and 16 meters (40-52 feet). To facilitate their harvest, the plants are pruned up to twice a year to an average height of 2 meters.
On modern mate plantations, producers tend to keep plants around a height of 2 meters.
Interestingly, despite innumerable attempts, yerba mate has always resisted growing outside the perimeter formerly inhabited by the Guarani.
Even though many attempts have been made to cultivate it in similar areas of North America, Asia and Africa, all those trials have failed. This is how yerba mate was preserved as a treasure exclusive to this region of South America.
Impact on health
In terms of health benefits, yerba mate is similar to green tea, although much more nutritious. Significant amounts of potassium, sodium, magnesium are present both in the leaves and in the infusion, in addition to having vitamins A, B, C and E.
Drinking mate gives you a real energy and concentration boost, similar to coffee. Allegedly it also decreases nervousness (although this varies from person to person, I myself get more edgy than with coffee for example).
An improvement in mood, especially in cases of depression, is also associated with mate consumption. Yerba mate slows down the accumulation of lactic acid in the muscles, which makes it an excellent natural energizer for people who practice sports or other physical activities.
Different mate styles & preparation
Good jungle fren BowTiedGlobe beat me to it, and this is a great overview of all the different preparations of the yerba mate infusions:
The Chimarrão in Portuguese is what is the most common type of infusion is in Argentina and Uruguay, hot fresh mate. Tereré is the cold version, most popular in Paraguay.
In Argentina, “mate” is the infusion that is prepared with the leaves of the plant, as well as the container, which is usually made of a pumpkin and sometimes cut out of wood or metal.
Thanks for reading BowTiedMara - Subscribe for free to receive new posts in your inbox.
Mate rounds while passing the mate around are very popular in all mate cultures, maybe a bit less after the pandemic, since it’s one of the best ways to pass a virus (the bombilla is not washed/cleaned, you just start drinking where the other person left off).
In the tweet below you can find a good overview of the different yerba styles in each country:
If you plan on visiting Argentina or any of the other countries mentioned here, don’t forget to try some mate. Just buy your own bombilla if the idea of slurping with a used straw grosses you out.
See you in the jungle, frens!