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Yerba mate in a gourd


Mate in a gourd header

Let’s get this out of the way first: is it spelled yerba mate or maté? Normally, when words from other languages are adopted into English, their accent marks go away. In this case, it’s the other way around. In both Spanish and Portuguese, the word is spelled mate and pronounced MAH-tay. No accent mark is used, because it would shift the emphasis to the 2nd syllable. The word maté in Spanish means “killed.”

In the United States, people unfamiliar with the drink see “yerba mate” written on a jar in a tea shop and pronounce mate to rhyme with late. So it has become accepted in English to add the accent above the e just to help us pronounce the word right. Linguists call this a hypercorrection.

Yerba, on the other hand, is spelled consistently in English, Spanish, and Portuguese, but the pronunciation varies depending on where you are. As you move across South America, it shifts from YER-ba to JHER-ba.

Directly translated, a mate is a gourd, and yerba is an herb, so yerba mate (Ilex paraguariensis) is literally the herb you drink from a gourd. I don’t really care which way you spell (or pronounce) the word as long as you give this delicious drink a try!

Mate plant

A yerba mate tree in the wild. Thanks to Wikimedia for the image.

Yerba mate is a species of holly that contains caffeine (not, as previously thought, some related molecule called mateine). It grows in Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay, and is the caffeinated beverage of choice for many people who live in those countries.

In the U.S., mate is usually made like tea, with the leaves steeped in boiling water for a few minutes and then removed. This, however, isn’t the way Argentinian gauchos (cowboys) been drinking mate in South America for centuries.

Mate gourds

Some gourds and bombillas from Phoenix Pearl Tea. The one in the back is a leather-wrapped gourd, and the tall one isn’t a gourd, but wood carved out from a holly branch.

The process uses four elements: dried yerba mate leaves, hot water, a gourd (mate), and a bombilla (straw). Bombilla is another word that varies in pronunciation in different parts of South America, ranging from BOM-bee-ya to BOM-beezh-a.

Drinking mate was a social time for the gauchos and still is throughout much of South America. You generally won’t find yerba mate served this way in a U.S. tea shop, because it’s darned near impossible to clean a natural gourd to health department standards.

  1. First, the host (known as the cebador), fills the gourd about 1/2 to 2/3 full of leaf. Yeah, that’s a lot of leaf, but we’ll get a lot of cups out of it!
  2. Next, the cebador shakes or taps the gourd at an angle to get the fine particles to settle to the bottom and the stems and large pieces to rise to the top, making a natural filter bed. Before pressing the bombilla against the leaves, dampening them with cool water helps to keep the filter bed in place.
  3. Finally, the cebador adds the warm water. The water is warm (around 60-70°C or 140-160°F) rather than boiling, because boiling water may cause the gourd to crack—and your lips simply won’t forgive you for drinking boiling water through a metal straw!

In most of the world’s ceremonies, the host goes last, always serving the guests first. The mate ceremony doesn’t work that way. That first gourd full of yerba mate is most likely to get little leaf particles in the bombilla, and can be bitter. So the cebador takes one for the team and drinks the first gourdful.

Green Yerba Mate

Dried yerba mate leaves.

After polishing off the first round, the cebador adds more warm water and passes the gourd to the guest to his or her left. The guest empties the gourd completely (you share the gourd, not the drink!), being careful not to jiggle around the bombilla and upset the filter bed, and passes the gourd back to the cebador.

The process repeats, moving clockwise around the participants, with everyone getting a full gourd of yerba mate. A gourd full of leaves should last for at least 15 servings before it loses its flavor and becomes flat.




Most popular teas of 2014

Most Popular Teas of 2014 header

I’m bringing back the old January tradition that I skipped last year, which is reviewing my tea bar’s most popular loose-leaf teas of the previous year. This time, it’s a little different. In the 2011 and 2012 summaries, I just looked at the overall bestsellers. This time, I’m going to break it down by category.

I don’t want my blog to be a commercial for the shop, but on the other hand, I do want to provide links to the tea bar’s website, in case readers are interested in trying out any of these teas. As a compromise, if you see a regular link in this post, it goes to another post in my blog. If you see the name of a tea italicized in square brackets [like this], it goes to that tea’s page on shop’s website.

Black Tea

My Scottish breakfast blend, which I call [Gary’s Kilty Pleasure] remains the top-selling unflavored black tea for the fourth year in a row. There’s something about the complementary maltiness of the estate-grown Assam and strong traditional flavors of the Mount Kenya black teas that really works together.


The classic [organic tieguanyin], a.k.a. Iron Goddess of Mercy, topped the straight oolong charts. It is medium-roasted and lightly-oxidized, using traditional bamboo coal baking techniques. Most of our oolong drinkers like the flavored options, however, and mango was the top flavor of choice.

Green Tea

Overall, [organic Jasmine Green] did the best. There’s something about the delicate aroma of jasmine that really adds to the flavor of a good green tea. Of the unflavored, unscented green teas, it was Dragonwell (longjing) by a big margin!

White Tea

Our new Shou Mei narrowly edged out the [Yin-Zhen Silver Needles Supreme], even though it hasn’t made it to our website yet. On the flavored side, the [Peach Blossom White] blew away all of the competition. We don’t serve many cups of it hot, but it’s far and away the most popular iced tea at the bar.


It’s really hard to pin this one down. We get one answer if we measure sales by the ounce of loose-leaf tea sold, but a very different answer if we take into consideration all of the compressed pu-erh (beeng cha, tuo cha, brick, and so forth). In total mass, this year’s winner would have to be ripe “wild” pu-erh bricks from 2005.

Earl Grey

We have nine different Earl Grey blends, but the organic, fair trade [Ancient Tree Earl Grey] has not only been the number one Earl Grey, but has held a spot in our top three sellers overall for as long as we’ve been selling tea.

Masala Chai

In 2013, we made a scary move. We dropped the Rishi organic masala chai that had been our number-one selling tea and replaced it with a house blend. Several house blends, actually. Our house chai, which is made with estate-grown Assam and our own masala spice blend, did reasonably well, but then serendipity stepped in. We were experimenting around with a caffeine-free option, and blended our spices with rooibos and caramel. The first cup we brewed, Doug looked at me and said, “Oh my God! This is a ginger cookie in a cup!” We named it [Ginger Cookie Chai], and it became our top masala chai, and one of the best-selling teas overall. It also makes a great molasses cookie recipe!

The Holly family

Yerba maté has always been a good seller for us, so we decided to add the other two members of the holly family that produce caffeine: guayusa and yaupon. [Guayusa] became a staff favorite, and soon surpassed yerba maté. It’s an amazing drink that we just can’t get enough of!


We sell a lot of rooibos, and I am still surprised that the green rooibos outsells red rooibos by a factor of three. Yes, [Green Rooibos], which most Americans haven’t even heard of, is one of the top 15 sellers out of the 150+ teas and tisanes we sell. When it comes to flavored rooibos, [Montana Gold], a caffeine-free blend from our friends at Montana Tea & Spice not only handily tops the list of rooibos-based blends, but was our #1 seller overall.

Other herbals

When you think of herbal tea, what’s the first herb that pops into your mind? Probably chamomile. Personally, I’m not a big chamomile drinker, which probably explains why none of my chamomile blends compete with [Evening in Missoula], another complex and wonderful blend from Montana Tea & Spice.

While writing this blog post, I was drinking an organic Iron Goddess of Mercy (tieguanyin), as I so often do. It’s a soft and flavorful oolong that’s lightly baked and medium oxidized. I usually use my leaves at least three or four times, brewing it with 175-degree water. I make my first infusion light (2 1/2 minutes), and then add 30 second to each subsequent infusion.

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