About JD Doyle

Bookbinder, knitter, spinner, singer, runner, vegetarian, & sometime poet.

Yerba Mate: Nectar of the Gods

Here in America (and New England!), coffee is the stimulant of choice. Some of our neighbors to the south, however, prefer a drink called yerba mate (pronounced MAH-tay). Mate comes to us much like any other infused beverage (the term “infused” simply means that a plant is steeped in water), but World of Tea has done a nice feature on how yerba mate goes from tree to tea, if you’re interested in this process.

Loose-leaf yerba mate—the key ingredient in a delicious concoction.

Yerba mate is not a true tea, since all true teas are derived from the same plant, Camellia sinensis (spoiler alert—herbal tea isn’t tea, exactly); rather, it comes from a species of holly (Ilex paraguariensis) native to South America. Traditionally a social beverage, yerba mate is served from a calabash gourd through a metal straw called, amongst other things, a bombilla.

On that note, let’s take a step back for a moment and consider the terminology, because it can be a bit confusing:

  • Yerba mate: the plant itself; sometimes also the drink
  • Yerba: dried yerba mate leaves, chopped and ground into powder
  • Mate: the drink; also, the gourd used to serve it
  • Chimarrão: the drink, in Brazil
  • Guampa or cuia: other names for the serving gourd
  • Bombilla, bomba, bombija, or masassa: the metal (traditionally silver) straw used when serving mate in the traditional way

Note: Although “mate” is sometimes accented (“maté”) in English, this is generally considered to be a case hypercorrection, probably intended to indicate the pronunciation. The Yerba Mate Association of the Americas (their site appears to have an error right now, but you can look at older versions via the Wayback Machine) rejects this spelling, since it creates confusion in the Spanish language. Still, an argument can be made for the inclusion of the accent in English, and English dictionaries vary on the preferred spelling; both are often listed, with one as a variant. I’ve chosen “mate” in this article, in line with the Spanish spelling.

Preparation

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s take a brief look at how mate is traditionally served—with the disclaimer that there are minor regional and preferential differences, as you might expect.

  1. Dried yerba mate leaves are placed into the gourd. The person preparing the mate covers the opening of the gourd with his/her hand, turns the gourd upside-down, and shakes it a few times, then tilts it slightly and shakes it some more. This has the effect of removing some of the powder, and it also forces the larger leaves to the top, where they can provide something of an extra filter for the bombilla. The yerba mate leaves should now be sitting in the gourd at a slant.
  2. The bombilla is placed into the gourd, on the emptier side. The gourd can then be tilted slightly to allow some (but not all) of the yerba mate leaves to settle atop the bombilla.
  3. Luke-warm water is poured into the emptier side of the gourd, without flooding the whole thing. The water is allowed to be absorbed into the leaves.
  4. Hot (but not boiling) water is poured into the gap, and the mate is ready for consumption through the bombilla. Even during this portion, some of the leaves in the gourd will remain dry. (After enough re-fillings, this would no longer be the case.) This step is repeated as desired.

There are a ton of videos online about how to drink mate, but this was the most briefly informative one I found that wasn’t in Spanish. Take a look! (If you’re interested in a more thorough description, this video on the Uruguayan method is also quite good.)

That said, here in the States, the process is a bit simpler—we usually prepare mate just like we do a green tea, steeping it in hot (but, again, not boiling) water briefly, or else drinking it as part of a tea latte (I particularly enjoy my mate lattes with soy milk and a touch of vanilla).

Caffeine? Mateine? What?

Many sources claim that rather than caffeine, mate contains a substance called mateine, a related, mild stimulant—and up until I started doing research for this post, this is what I believed to be true. However, my research has turned up a number of reasons to doubt this. Admittedly, I’m no scientist, let alone a chemist, but two articles that I found on The Vaults of Erowid (1, 2) seemed pretty well researched and convincing, and I could find no solid evidence, or even the suggestion of solid evidence, from the other side, other than that which the Erowid articles attempt to debunk.

While the uncomfortable truth may be that there is simply too much misinformation out there and not enough research (let’s face it—finding a cure for cancer is probably more important than figuring out whether mateine is a thing in its own right or just a synonym for caffeine, as some chemical dictionaries seem to suggest), at this point I’m siding with the skeptics: mateine and caffeine are one and the same. I’ll admit that sitting down with a cup of mate has a different effect on me than a cup of coffee does, but more and more I suspect that this is a result of the mindset I have going into it (I expect tea to relax me; I expect coffee to give me the jitters) or else the differing levels of caffeine in the drinks (which I have not researched for this article). The first Erowid article above presents an alternative interpretation to why mate might make people feel different than green tea, as well. The fact is, there’s a lot out there that we don’t know—but that doesn’t mean we should ignore what we do.

So, then, what do I know? (Not much… wocka wocka.) I know that I love yerba mate—hence the title of this post—but I can’t endow it with mythical qualities just because it’s a fun story. Mate is a solid tea that I can enjoy at any time of day, and that, my friends, is good enough for me.

Drinking versus Tasting

We consume a lot of stuff in America—from coffee to computers to cars. We may not be in the era of the moonwalk anymore, but I don’t think that this consumptive, materialistic mentality has left us yet. France produces more wine than any other country in the world, and has the second-largest vineyard area (Spain beats it there). In Germany, beer has its own festival (the well-known Oktoberfest). In China, tea is considered one of the seven necessities to life (the others being firewood, rice, oil, salt, soy sauce, and vinegar). I suppose if we worship any drink here in America, it’s coffee. We consume it in such volume that there are, literally, places in the country where a Starbucks is situated across the street from a Starbucks. (Just ask Lewis Black.) But that’s just what it is—consumption. According to the International Coffee Organization, in 2009, Americans consumed just over 9 pounds of coffee per capita. We might not have anything on Scandinavia, but that’s still a lot of coffee. Yet, most of us still think that a dark roast has more caffeine than a medium roast. Many worship Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks as if they were gods, while ignoring the local cafés that bring us truly great drinks, for just a little added expense.

Luckily, the independent cafés are doing well enough to stick around, and even to open new ones—and I, for one, am grateful. As my bio on this site mentions, I wasn’t always a coffee drinker. It all started one Christmas day, when my uncle wanted me to play Texas Hold ‘Em and I wanted to go to bed. So, I had a cup of Maxwell House—and, for the first time in my life, I didn’t hate it. It took a while from there until I got away from the Folger’s/Dunkin’ Donuts stuff myself and graduated onto grinding my own beans from Trader Joe’s.

What I didn’t realize at first, or even appreciate fully when I first started grinding fresh beans, was the true complexity of flavors available in coffee. If you read the labels on bags of Counter Culture or Stumptown beans, it quickly becomes apparent that people who are serious about their coffee talk about it very similarly to how wine aficionados talk about their favorite merlot or shiraz. You start seeing mentions of floral aromatics, chocolate and butterscotch, cherry jam and toasted nuts. Who knew you could find all of that in a cup o’ Joe?

I’m not a great taster—in fact, I’m terrible at it. On a good day, I’ll be able to pick out something obvious in a wine, like blackberry or nuttiness, but most of the time the best I can do is say, “Hey, I really like this one!” I will never be a sommelier. But I also refuse to believe that tasting is an innate talent, not an acquirable skill. We do a lot of drinking in this country, but not necessarily a lot of tasting. So, this holiday season, take a step back, take a deep breath (literally—so much of tasting is in the nose), and take a sip—of coffee, or wine, or beer, or tea. Don’t just drink it; try to figure out what’s in there. You might be surprised by what you find. And even if you can’t discern any particular flavor, you may at least begin to recognize the complexity of the tastes in your mouth. You may never look at your morning coffee the same way again.