Yerba mate tea has become an increasingly popular beverage around the world. With its rich history, bold flavor, and potential health benefits, it’s easy to see why so many people have fallen in love with this South American tea. Here is a comprehensive guide to everything you need to know about yerba mate, from what it is to how to drink it.
What is Yerba Mate Tea?
Yerba mate is a tea made from the dried leaves and stems of the Ilex paraguariensis plant, a species of holly native to South America. The name “mate” comes from the Quechua word mati, meaning “cup.”
Yerba mate contains caffeine as well as a blend of polyphenols, amino acids, vitamins and minerals. It has a strong, earthy and herbaceous flavor.
Unlike other teas, yerba mate is not cultivated but rather wild-harvested. The yerba mate plant is shade-grown and harvested after 3-4 years of growth. The leaves are aged after harvest to allow the flavor to develop before being dried, milled and packaged.
Where Does Yerba Mate Come From?
Yerba mate is traditionally consumed in subtropical South American countries including Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and southern Brazil, where it is known as chimarrão.
The Jesuit missionaries are credited with spreading the tradition of drinking yerba mate tea in the 16th century. They found that the native Guaraní people of Paraguay and Argentina had been drinking it for medicinal purposes for centuries.
The main producers of yerba mate today are still Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. The Argentinean province of Misiones accounts for around 70% of the global production.
How is Yerba Mate Tea Made?
To make mate, the dried yerba mate leaves are steeped in hot (not boiling) water. Unlike other teas, yerba mate leaves are not strained but allowed to steep together with the water in the cup or gourd.
The traditional vessel for drinking mate is called a mate gourd. It is commonly made from a hollowed-out calabash gourd, but can also be ceramic, wood or metal.
The mate is filled about three quarters full with the tea leaves, then hot water (around 70°C/160°F) is added. The tea is sucked through a metal straw (bombilla) which has small holes or a strainer at the bottom to filter out the leaf particles.
How is Yerba Mate Tea Consumed?
Mate is traditionally consumed in a social setting, with the same gourd and bombilla passed around a group and refilled with hot water as long as the flavor of the leaves lasts.
In parts of South America, sharing mate with friends and family is an important social ritual and a sign of friendship and connection. It is not uncommon to see people walking down the street sipping mate while passing the gourd to their companion.
Mate can also be consumed individually. Some people like to drink it first thing in the morning as a replacement for coffee. It can also be consumed in the afternoon for an energy boost.
What are the Benefits of Yerba Mate Tea?
Yerba mate has been used as a traditional medicine in its native lands for improving energy, mental focus and overall health. Modern research has confirmed some of these traditional health uses:
- Energy boost – Yerba mate contains caffeine which can help fight fatigue and improve concentration. The caffeine content is moderate, providing a gentle increase in energy without the jitters or crash associated with coffee.
- Increased mental focus – In addition to caffeine, compounds in yerba mate like theophylline and theobromine contribute to its energizing effects. There’s some evidence they may support better mood, alertness and concentration.
- Antioxidants – Yerba mate is very high in polyphenols, a class of antioxidants that can help reduce inflammation and protect cells from damage. The main antioxidant compounds include chlorogenic acid, caffeic acid and caffeoyl derivatives.
- Weight management – Some research indicates yerba mate may help control appetite and reduce cravings by slowing digestion. This could make it easier to eat less and potentially aid in weight loss. However more studies are needed.
- Cardiovascular health – Yerba mate contains compounds that may help improve blood flow and cholesterol levels, reducing the risk of heart disease. However the research has been mixed so far.
Of course, more research is still needed to fully understand yerba mate’s health benefits. But the evidence so far is promising.
The History of Yerba Mate Tea
Yerba mate has a long and interesting history stretching back centuries before colonization. Here are some key moments in the story of this ancient tea:
- Origins – The Guaraní people are the earliest known consumers of yerba mate tea. They would drink it during gatherings, ceremonies, and for its healing properties.
- Colonial era – In the 16th century, the Spanish colonized modern-day Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil. They observed the Guaraní drinking mate and adopted the practice themselves. Spanish settlers began large-scale cultivation of the plant.
- Jesuit influence – Jesuit missionaries were the first Europeans to drink yerba mate and realize its benefits. They promoted yerba mate to the settlers for its medicinal uses and ability to increase work capacity.
- Modern consumption – The popularity of yerba mate spread throughout Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay as these nations gained independence in the early 1800s. Drinking mate became ingrained as a cultural tradition.
- Global spread – Yerba mate began to be exported around the world starting in the mid-1900s. Today it is enjoyed worldwide as a healthful and energizing tea. Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay lead global production.
So while yerba mate’s origins are ancient, it continues to grow in popularity around the world as more people discover its rich flavor and potential wellness benefits.
The Different Types of Yerba Mate Tea
There are a few main types and styles of yerba mate you may encounter:
- Con palo – This traditional style includes small pieces of stem and vein mixed in with the leaves. It has a stronger flavor and higher caffeine content.
- Sin palo – Without stems or veins, this style results in a milder and smoother flavor. The leaves are more finely powdered.
- Suave (smooth) – These aged yerba mate blends create a smoother, less bitter tea. The leaves are aged and then milled into a fine powder.
- Compuesta (blended) – Blended yerba contains mate mixed with other herbs like lemongrass, peppermint, chamomile or guarana. This allows for unique flavors.
- Organic – Organic yerba is grown without any synthetic pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers, for those who prefer a tea with no chemicals.
The types of yerba mate can also vary in strength and caffeine content. Trying different kinds is the best way to find your perfect mate!
How to Brew Yerba Mate Tea
Brewing a tasty cup of yerba mate is simple to do using the traditional method:
- Fill a mate gourd about 3/4 full with dry yerba mate leaves. Shake the gourd to settle the leaves across the bottom.
- Tip the gourd sideways and pour hot water (not boiling) into the empty space. Be careful not to pour water directly on the dry leaves.
- Insert the metal straw (bombilla) into the tea, with the filter end fully immersed.
- Drink the mate through the straw. The bombilla strainer will filter out the leaf particles.
- When the mate loses flavor, add more hot water and continue drinking. The same leaves can be refilled 4-10 times.
- Rinse out the gourd and bombilla when finished and allow to fully dry before next use.
Always use hot but not boiling water, as boiling water can burn the leaves and create a bitter taste. Enjoy your mate!
How to Drink Yerba Mate Tea
Here are some tips for how to properly drink yerba mate:
- Sip the tea slowly through the bombilla straw. Don’t slurp or gulp it.
- Try not to move the bombilla around too much, as this can cause the opening to get clogged with leaves.
- Drink the entire cup of tea before refilling, to get the most flavor from the leaves.
- Add cool water first to help cool it down if the temperature is too hot.
- Refill the gourd with water as soon as it starts losing flavor. The same leaves can be rebrewed up to 10 times.
- Share mate with friends. Pass the filled gourd and bombilla to each person to drink in turn.
- Be aware that yerba mate does contain caffeine. Drink in moderation, especially later in the day.
- Savor the earthy, vegetal and nutty flavors. Mate has a potent taste that takes some getting used to.
Experiment to find your perfect brewing temperature, strength and mate style. Follow the local traditions for an authentic mate drinking experience.
The Health Benefits of Yerba Mate Tea
Yerba mate has been treasured for centuries in South America for its many health benefits. Science is now confirming some of these traditional health uses. Here are some of the ways yerba mate may be good for your health:
Energy and Focus
The natural caffeine and unique mix of nutrients in yerba mate make it a great pick-me-up when you need an energy boost. Just a few sips can awaken the mind and provide hours of gentle stimulation.
Mate seems to provide a balanced energy lift without the anxiety, jitters or crash you might experience from coffee or energy drinks. Studies show the caffeine, theobromine and theophylline in mate combine to optimize focus and concentration.
Yerba mate is loaded with antioxidants including polyphenols, saponins and chlorogenic acid. These compounds can neutralize free radicals and prevent oxidative stress on cells.
By protecting cells from damage, the antioxidants in mate may lower inflammation, slow aging, and reduce the risk of many diseases like heart disease and cancer. More research is still needed though.
Specific antioxidants like the chlorogenic acid in yerba mate may improve cholesterol levels and blood flow by preventing LDL cholesterol oxidation and relaxing blood vessels.
Some population studies in South America have found lower rates of heart disease among regular mate drinkers. While promising, more controlled research is needed to confirm these heart-protective effects.
Yerba mate may have compounds that suppress appetite and improve satiety after meals. One study in overweight adults showed those who drank yerba mate daily lost more weight than the placebo group.
This indicates mate could be a useful addition to a weight loss program, although more evidence is still needed. The caffeine may also boost metabolism slightly.
Compounds in yerba mate like chlorogenic acid may help slow the absorption of sugars in the bloodstream. There’s also some evidence mate may reduce insulin resistance.
These effects could potentially benefit blood sugar control in those with diabetes or prediabetes, although human research is limited so far. More studies are underway.
Potential Side Effects of Drinking Yerba Mate Tea
Yerba mate is generally safe for most healthy adults to consume in moderate amounts. However, there are some potential side effects to be aware of:
- Since mate contains caffeine, consuming large amounts can cause jitteriness, anxiety, headaches or trouble sleeping in sensitive individuals. Start slow if you’re not used to caffeine.
- Mate’s caffeine could also worsen acid reflux or stomach ulcers. Avoid drinking on an empty stomach.
- Mate may interfere with absorption of certain medications. Separate taking your medication and drinking mate by at least an hour or two.
- Unpasteurized mate may increase risk of foodborne illness if shared. Make sure to rinse the bombilla thoroughly between users.
- Drinking extremely hot mate could potentially increase esophageal cancer risk. Allow the water to cool slightly before pouring it over the leaves.
- Anyone with a medical condition should check with their doctor before adding yerba mate to their diet as a precaution.
Moderation is key. Start slowly with mate to see how your body responds.
Yerba Mate Tea and Culture
Across South America, sipping yerba mate tea is not just a daily ritual, it’s an important part of culture and tradition. Here’s a look at the cultural significance of this special tea:
Sharing and Community
Serving mate is a symbol of hospitality and friendship in Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and southern Brazil. Mate is routinely shared among family, friends, co-workers or strangers.
The tradition of passing around the mate gourd and bombilla helps bring people together and strengthen social bonds. Drinking mate with others is a time to talk, connect, and enjoy each other’s company.
Drinking mate is a traditional pastime woven into the fabric of everyday life in many South American countries. Sipping mate while walking, working or sitting with friends is a marker of cultural identity.
This shared custom connects people across generations. Learning the rituals of preparing and drinking mate is an important part of assuming adult roles.
For centuries before colonization, indigenous groups like the Guaraní used yerba mate for its healing properties. Mate was believed to have powers to cleanse the blood, aid digestion, boost immunity and increase energy.
While dismissed at first, settlers and missionaries in Paraguay and Argentina came to recognize and adopt mate drinking for medicinal purposes. They promoted its use for increasing work capacity and vitality.
Argentina and Uruguay in particular have strong nationalistic associations with drinking yerba mate. It’s seen as part of their cultural heritage and everyday lifestyle.
To drink tea from imported tea bags rather than local yerba mate would be unpatriotic! International mate brands often position themselves as authentic expressions of South American pride.
So while yerba mate quenches thirst, it also nourishes traditions, bonds between people, and a sense of belonging.
Yerba Mate Tea and Health
Beyond the cultural importance of yerba mate, South Americans have treasured it for centuries as an everyday health tonic. Here’s an overview of the traditional and scientific views on mate’s wellness benefits:
Traditional Health Uses
Indigenous groups like the Guaraní revered yerba mate for its healing properties such as:
- Cleansing blood and liver
- Aiding digestion
- Increasing strength and energy
- Acting as a mild diuretic
- Reducing fatigue
- Improving mood
Early Spanish colonizers dismissed these beliefs at first. But they eventually embraced yerba mate as the colonized regions adopted the beverage for themselves.
Modern research has uncovered some scientific explanations for mate’s traditional health uses:
- Antioxidants to reduce inflammation and cell damage
- Compounds to boost metabolism and mental focus
- Nutrients to support immune function
- Caffeine for sustained energy
Population studies associate yerba mate drinking with reduced risk of diseases like diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure.
However, more rigorous controlled studies are still needed to confirm yerba mate’s health benefits and understand optimal amounts for wellness. The research continues to evolve.
While not a cure-all, yerba mate remains a wholesome energizing beverage with science supporting some of its traditional health claims. Moderate daily consumption may have a place in a healthy lifestyle.
Yerba Mate Tea Recipes
While yerba mate is delicious on its own, there are many tasty ways to prepare it for variety:
Fill a large cup halfway with ice then top with freshly brewed hot mate. Sweeten with a dash of honey if desired.
Combine strongly brewed hot mate with steamed milk and honey. Froth it up like a latte.
Mate & Herbal Tea Blends
Try brewing yerba mate with complementary herbs like mint, chamomile or lemongrass.
This is a traditional Paraguayan cold mate drink. Brew a strong ratio of yerba mate and mix in cold water, ice and mint.
Mix yerba mate brewed tea with citrus juices or carbonated water for a natural pick-me-up cocktail.
Blend yerba mate tea with frozen fruit like mangos or berries for an antioxidant-rich smoothie.
Experiment with brewing styles and ingredient combinations to create your perfect yerba mate drink. It’s great hot or cold!
Yerba Mate Tea Accessories
Part of the enjoyment of yerba mate is having the proper supplies to brew and drink it authentically, like:
- Mate Gourd – The traditional hollow gourd cup, often decorated
- Bombilla – Metal straw with filter for straining the tea
- Thermos – For easily transporting hot water for mate on-the-go
- Mate Kit – Kits contain gourd, bombilla, yerba mate and other accessories
- Electric thermo-mate – Device to keep water hot for mate at the perfect temperature
While not essential, having your own mate supplies can make the experience of sipping yerba mate even more special. Search online or visit South American specialty stores to find authentic mate gear.
Frequently Asked Questions About Yerba Mate Tea
Here are answers to some common questions about this popular South American tea:
Is yerba mate tea healthy?
Research suggests yerba mate provides antioxidants for reducing inflammation, compounds to improve focus and energy, and nutrients that may benefit heart health. Moderate consumption seems reasonably healthy for most people.
Does yerba mate have caffeine?
Yes, yerba mate contains caffeine. The amount can vary but is generally around 85
mg per 8 ounce cup. This is less than coffee but more than black tea. The caffeine effects are very balanced and sustainable.
What does yerba mate taste like?
Yerba mate has a bold, earthy and herbaceous taste. It is grassy and vegetal with slight bitter notes. The flavor is strong and potent compared to other teas. Adding milk or sweetener can smooth out the bitterness.
Can I drink yerba mate every day?
For most healthy people, drinking 1-3 cups of yerba mate tea daily should be fine. Have it in moderation since it does have caffeine. Avoid drinking mate late in the day if the caffeine affects your sleep.
Is yerba mate acidic?
The pH of brewed yerba mate ranges from 4.7 to 5.5, so it is on the acidic side. Those with reflux or ulcers may want to limit consumption, especially on an empty stomach. Drinking with food can help.
What’s the best way to brew yerba mate?
Use hot but not boiling water and fill the mate gourd only partway with leaves. Pour water slowly onto the side. Drink the mate from top to bottom through the bombilla before refilling with more hot water.
Can I grow my own yerba mate plant?
Outside of its native growing zones in South America, growing yerba mate yourself can be challenging. The plant prefers humid, subtropical climates and partial shade. It can be grown as a houseplant with care.
Is Yerba Mate Tea Right For You?
Yerba mate is well worth trying if you enjoy bold and earthy teas.