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!
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.
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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
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.
While Europe was getting hooked on coffee and Asia was drinking tea, the people of Argentina and Paraguay were enjoying their own indigenous source of caffeine: yerba maté.
Yerba maté comes from a plant called Ilex paraguariensis, a species of holly which contains caffeine and other xanthines. Maté is a traditional beverage throughout South America, typically served hot (well, “warm” by American standards) and shared among friends from a gourd and bombilla (metal or cane straw).
The matés we tasted were:
- Traditional green yerba maté (organic)
- Roasted yerba maté
- Montana huckleberry maté
- Carnival maté
- Eye of the Storm (our house blend minty maté)
Although when it comes to caffeinated drinks, Argentina is mostly known for its yerba maté, the country is the world’s 9th largest producer of tea, with an annual production of about 60,000 tons. Most of that tea is used in blends and iced teas, and it’s pretty rare to find an Argentinian tea on the menu at a tea bar.
In land area, Argentina is the world’s 8th largest country, covering over a million square miles. Their population is just over 40 million, and the main language is Spanish.
The word maté actually means “gourd,” a reference to the vessel traditionally used when drinking yerba maté in most of South America. In Paraguay, on the other hand, they often drink their maté cold (they call it tereré) from a guampa, a drinking vessel made from an ox horn.
The total world production of yerba maté is about 500,000 tons, of which about 290,000 tons comes from Argentina: almost five times their annual tea production. The rest is almost all grown in Brazil and Paraguay. This makes it about a $1.4 billion market (in U.S. dollars) — much bigger than the rooibos market we talked about last week. The majority of the maté is consumed in South America, with the largest outside buyer being Syria.
Maté is usually produced like a green tea, with minimal oxidation. The gourd is packed about half full with leaves in an elaborate ritual, and then filled the rest of the way with water at about 150 degrees F. Argentinian children enjoy maté, too, usually prepared with milk.
In the U.S., maté is more often prepared like tea, by steeping in hot or boiling water. A bit of sugar can help to cut the bitterness caused by the hotter water.
We tasted both a plain maté and one of our house blends with peppermint and spearmint added (that one is yummy iced!).
It is becoming increasingly popular to roast the maté, producing a drink that is darker and richer. The taste of roasted maté is often compared to coffee or chicory. We tasted a plain roasted maté plus two flavored ones: a “carnival” maté with caramel and Spanish safflower, and a Montana huckleberry maté.
Caffeine and Maté
It was long thought that maté contained a chemical called mateine, similar to caffeine and a member of the xanthine family. Recent research has shown that mateine actually is caffeine, and it just showed up differently in lab tests because of other compounds present in the maté.
Yerba maté contains three different xanthines: caffeine, theobromine, and theophylline. The total caffeine content is higher than a typical cup of tea, but less than a strong coffee. The way the maté is prepared has a great effect on the caffeine content: the temperature of the water, the steep time, and the amount of leaf used all interact to influence how much caffeine is extracted from the leaves into the drink.
When I have some more time, I’ll write a post detailing and illustrating the maté ceremony.
This was the eighth stop on our World Tea Tasting Tour, in which we explore the tea of China, India, Japan, Taiwan, England, South Africa, Kenya, and Argentina. Each class costs $5.00, which includes the tea tasting itself and a $5.00 off coupon that can be used that night for any tea, teaware, or tea-related books that we sell.
For a full schedule of the tea tour, see my introductory post from February.