Yerba mate translates to “mate herb”, where mate is originally from the Quechuamati, a complex word with multiple meanings. Mati means “container for a drink”, “infusion of an herb”, as well as “gourd“.
In English, “mate” is occasionally written “maté” to distinguish it from other meanings of the word mate. However, this spelling is incorrect in Spanish and Portuguese, as it would put the stress in the second syllable, while the word is pronounced with stress in the first. Indeed, the word maté in Spanish has a completely different meaning (“I killed”).
Yerba mate, or Ilex paraguariensis, begins as a shrub and then matures to a tree and can grow up to 15 metres (49 ft) tall. The leaves are evergreen, 7–110 millimetres (0.3–4.3 in) long and 30–55 millimetres (1.2–2.2 in) wide, with a serrated margin. The leaves are often called yerba(Spanish) or erva (Portuguese), both of which mean “herb”. They contain caffeine(known in some parts of the world as mateine) and also contains related xanthine alkaloids and are harvested commercially.
The flowers are small, greenish-white, with four petals. The fruit is a red drupe4–6 millimetres (0.16–0.24 in) in diameter.
New growth evident on young yerba mate plant
The yerba mate plant is grown and processed in South America, specifically in northern Argentina (Corrientes, Misiones), Paraguay, Uruguay and southern Brazil (Rio Grande do Sul, Santa Catarina, Paraná and Mato Grosso do Sul). Cultivators are known as yerbateros(Spanish) or ervateiros (Brazilian Portuguese).
Seeds used to germinate new plants are harvested from January until April only after they have turned dark purple. After harvest, they are submerged in water in order to eliminate floating non-viable seeds and detritus like twigs, leaves, etc. New plants are started between March and May. For plants established in pots, transplanting takes place April through September. Plants with bare roots are transplanted only during the months of June and July.
Many of the natural enemies of yerba mate are difficult to control in a plantation setting. Insect pests include Gyropsylla spegazziniana, a true bug that lays eggs in branches, Hedyphates betulinus, a type of beetle that weakens the tree and makes it more susceptible to mold and mildew, Perigonia lusca, a moth whose larvae eat the leaves, and several species of mites.
When yerba mate is harvested, the branches are often dried by a wood fire, imparting a smoky flavor. The plant Ilex paraguariensis can vary in strength of the flavor, caffeine levels and other nutrients depending on whether it is a male or female plant. Female plants tend to be milder in flavor and lower in caffeine. They are also relatively scarce in the areas where yerba mate is planted and cultivated.
According to FAO in 2012, Brazil is the biggest producer of mate in the world with 513,256 MT (58%), followed by Argentina with 290,000 MT (32%) and Paraguay with 85,490 MT (10%).
Steaming mate infusion
in a cup that resembles a gourd
, the customary vessel
The infusion, called mate in Spanish-speaking countries or chimarrão in Brazil, is prepared by filling a container, typically a gourd, up to three-quarters full with dry leaves (and twigs) of the mate plant, and filling it up with water at a temperature of 70–80 °C (158–176 °F), hot but not boiling. Sugar may or may not be added; it may also be prepared with cold water (tereré).
Drinking mate with friends from a hollow gourd (also called a guampa, porongo or mate in Spanish, cabaça or cuia in Portuguese, or zucca in Italian) through a metal straw (a bombilla in Spanish, bombain Portuguese), refilling and passing to the next person after finishing the few mouthfuls of beverage, is a common social practice in Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina and southern Brazil among people of all ages.
Although traditionally made from a hollowed calabash gourd, these days mate “gourds” are produced from a variety of materials including wood, glass, bull horns, ceramic and silicone.
Yerba mate is most popular in Paraguay and Uruguay, where people are seen walking the streets carrying the mate and termo (thermal vacuum flask) in their arms. In Argentina 5 kg (11 lb) of yerba mate is consumed annually per capita; in Uruguay, the largest consumer, consumption is 10 kg (22 lb). The amount of the herb used to prepare the infusion is much greater than that used for tea and other beverages, accounting for the large weight used.
Yerba mate shop, Puerto Iguazu, Argentina
The flavor of brewed mate resembles an infusion of vegetables, herbs, grass and is reminiscent of some varieties of green tea. Some consider the flavor to be very agreeable, but it is generally bitter if steeped in boiling water. Flavored mate is also sold, in which the mate leaves are blended with other herbs (such as peppermint) or citrus rind.
In Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina, a version of mate, known as mate cocido(Paraguay), chá mate (Brazil) or just mateor “cocido” in Paraguay, is sold in teabags and in a loose leaf form. It is often served sweetened in specialized shops or on the street, either hot or iced, pure or with fruit juice (especially lime – known in Brazil as limão) or milk. In Paraguay, Argentina and southern Brazil, this is commonly consumed for breakfast or in a café for afternoon tea, often with a selection of sweet pastries (facturas).
An iced, sweetened version of mate cocido is sold as an uncarbonated soft drink, with or without fruit flavoring. In Brazil, this cold version of chá mate is especially popular in the South and Southeast regions, and can easily be found in retail stores in the same cooler as soft-drinks. Mate batido, which is toasted, has less of a bitter flavor and more of a spicy fragrance. Mate batidobecomes creamy when shaken. Mate batido is more popular in the coastal cities of Brazil, as opposed to the far southern states, where it is consumed in the traditional way (green, consumed with a silver straw from a shared gourd), and called chimarrão (cimarrón in Spanish, particularly that of Argentina).
In Paraguay, western Brazil (Mato Grosso do Sul, west of São Paulo and Paraná) and the Argentine littoral, a mate infusion, called tereré in Spanish and Portuguese or tererê in Portuguese in southern regions of Brazil, is also consumed as a cold or iced beverage, usually sucked out of a horn cup called guampa with a bombilla. Tereré can be prepared with cold water (the most common way in Paraguay and Brazil), or fruit juice (the most common way in Argentina). The version with water is more bitter; fruit juice acts as a sweetener (in Brazil, that is usually avoided with the addition of table sugar). Medicinal or culinary herbs, known as yuyos (weeds), may be crushed with a pestle and mortar, and added to the water for taste or medicinal reasons. Tereré is most popular in Paraguay, Brazil, and the Litoral (northeast Argentina).
In the same way as people meet for tea or coffee, friends often gather and drink mate (matear) in Paraguay, Argentina, southern Brazil, and Uruguay. Sharing mate is almost a ritual, following customary rules. In warm weather the hot water is sometimes replaced by lemonade, but not in Uruguay. Paraguay typically drinks yerba mate with cold water during hot days and hot water in the morning and cooler temperatures.