Yerba mate, or Ilex Paraguariensis, is an Aquifolial plant native to the jungles of southern Brazil, eastern Paraguay, and northeastern Argentina. Related to holly, these trees are wild to this region and can grow up to sixteen meters high. When a tree reaches four years in age, its leaves may be harvested and used to make the popular beverage yerba mate, known throughout the world simply as mate (pronounced MAH-tay). Yerba mate is commonly drunk throughout Argentina, Paraguay, and the neighboring countries, but it has also gained popularity around the world.
Mate is most often consumed communally. A specialized cup in the shape of a gourd (also known as a mate) is filled partially with the dried leaves of the plant, and a straw with a filter on the end (known as a bombilla) is inserted into the leaves. One person pours hot water into the mate and tastes it to judge whether it is too hot or too bitter to share. Sometimes sugar or milk is added. When the infusion of water and mate leaves has been drunk, water is poured into the mixture again and it is passed on to the next person, who drinks it and passes it back to be refilled again for the next drinker. This goes on until the leaves lose their flavor, a process which can continue among friends for many social hours. The drink contains caffeine, and its effects on the body are healthier like those that come with coffee. The flavor is earthy, and generally fairly bitter.
The first people to drink yerba mate were the indigenous tribes near modern Paraguay, Uruguay, and the region of Argentina known as Mesopotamia. The Guaraní tribe drank mate from hollow gourds, using bombillas of cane grass. In the Guaraní language the drinking gourd is called mati, while the drink itself is called ka’a. This drink was exchanged among other local tribes, and eventually it was also exchanged with the Jesuit missionaries coming into the region from Spain. The Jesuits drank it differently than the Guaraní (preferring to drink it like tea), but they adopted the beverage and took it with them from this region into their sites further south, into the regions around Rio de la Plata, which is the modern location of the city of Buenos Aires. The Jesuit priests and monks raised yerba mate production to an industrial level, planting vast orchards of it and drinking gallons of the beverage until were expelled from the region by the Pope in 1767.
Mate in the 20th Century
In the 20th century the production of yerba mate became a major industry in Argentina, with the government giving European settlers financial incentives to cultivate the plant. However, many Argentines preferred to import it from Brazil and Paraguay. This import of foreign mate adversely impacted the Argentine growers to such a degree that in 1936 the government instituted laws to manage the growth and sale of the plant. Production quotas were set on the Argentine farmers, but importation continued until the law was repealed in 1989. Since then an overproduction of yerba mate has saturated the market and caused the prices to drastically decrease.
Yerba mate can only be grown within its particular wetland region, where the plant has evolved to fit perfectly with the temperature and humidity. There have been attempts at growing yerba mate in Africa, Asia, and North America, but the failures of these attempts has given the countries where mate is native a monopoly on the product. Today it is an important export and a strong economic resource for these countries. Mate is drunk all over the world, with different customs in different places.
In South America yerba mate is commonly shared. This was inherited by the native indigenous people who passed the infusion one by one in a circle. Later, the gauchos, once their hard work was finished, gathered around a fire and shared not only mate but stories as well. Drinking Yerba Mate is a powerful social and cultural fact. In Argentina, when we say “Tomamos unos mates ?” (Shall we drink mate ?) we are meaning to stop and relax for a while enjoying yerba enhanced by good talking or just silence. Thousands of couples begun their love stories with that simple question.
In a world increasingly accelerated and with less time to simply share our moods and thoughts face to face with others, the ancient ritual of lighting a fire, preparing water and yerba, permanently reminds us that the sense of things is always in very simple acts. Drinking mate in a group setting has nothing but positive effects for the mate drinker’s overall health.
Even if you are alone, is a great time for quiet reflection, turning inward, solitude and rest, while you sip your own thoughts through the bombilla.
Yerba mate is documented as a good source of vitamin B1 and B2, iron, sodium, potassium, magnesium, and more than ten kinds of amino acids. It’s also been show to boost “good” cholesterol and increase an enzyme in the blood which works as a cardioprotector. In addition, it has a high concentration of polyphenols, which improve the body’s natural defenses.