Yerba mate or just mate?
Yerba mate (pronounced mah-tay) refers to the plant used to make the beverage mate, which is a traditional Central and South American drink. In Portuguese and Spanish, mate is never spelled with an accent over the “e” but this is often added in English-speaking countries to distinguish it from the English word “mate”. It is a two-syllable word with the stress on the first syllable.
Yerba mate is made from infusing leaves in water, usually hot water and is often thought of as being the Latin American version of tea. The Uruguayans consume on average around 10kg (22 lb) per year per person, which is more than five times as much tea that the average British person drinks.
However, as will be seen, it takes a lot more raw leaf material to prepare a cup of mate than it does to prepare tea from the leaves of Camellia sinensis so this is not an equal comparison.
Originally used by the Tupi and Guarani peoples of southern Brazil, it is extremely popular across the region, particularly in Paraguay and Uruguay but also in Brazil and Argentina. Brazil is the largest producer of yerba mate, producing over half the world’s supply, followed by Argentina, then Paraguay.
The yerba mate shrub
Yerba mate refers to the plant Ilex paraguariensis, a species of holly and has been used by communities in Brazil since pre-colonial times. It is a shrub, rather similar to its more familiar (in English-speaking countries at least) cousin the holly. It is evergreen, can grow to be a tree 15 metres (49ft) tall. Like holly, it has small flowers and bright red berries but unlike holly its leaves are not prickly.
Most importantly, however, holly is poisonous while yerba mate is not. Similar to Camellia sinensis is its collection psychoactive ingredients, namely caffeine, theobromine and theophylline and it is these compounds which are thought to be behind its popularity for thousands of years.
The infusion is traditionally prepared in a hollowed-out gourd, a natural container, but more often these days is prepared in a cup or a pot made of glass or ceramic. A lot more yerba mate raw material is used per brew than would be used to make tea: usually, the container is filled with up to three-quarters of its volume of dry leaves and sometimes twigs.
Like green tea, it should not be prepared with boiling water which will make it bitter, but with hot water at a temperature of 70–80 °C (158–176 °F), and it can also be prepared with cold water, fruit juice or lemonade
What does it taste like?
I would describe it as rather like certain varieties of green tea but with a smokier taste and more reminiscent of cut grass. Not as smoky as lapsang souchong but smokier than ordinary green tea. It is definitely more of a vegetable-like taste than a fruit one and I can imagine that someone not used to unsweetened beverages might find it off-puttingly bitter, even when brewed cold.
It’s not going to replace my beloved Camellia sinensis infusions but it’s an interesting, moreish flavour, and if I moved to Latin America I would happily drink a lot of it.
It can be served hot or cold and can be mixed with fruit flavours, other herbs or simply with sugar added and there is considerable variation across Latin America as to the preferred presentation. For example, there is mate batido, prepared from toasted leaves, which is spicier and less bitter, and most popular in coastal Brazil whereas in Argentina it is often prepared with fruit juice rather than water which results in a much sweeter drink.
Paraguay has a number of unique preparations of mate, and here it is tereré, brewed with cold water and drunk cold which is the most popular variety.
In Brazil this cold version is also very popular and can be found in retail stores as a ready-to-drink cold beverage alongside chilled sodas. Also, in Brazil, it is more usually found sweetened with sugar than with fruit juice.
Buying yerba mate
It is always worth seeking out a quality product, no matter which sort of tea you are buying, and yerba mate is no exception. Especially if you are trying something for the first time, it is important to be sure you are giving your taste buds the best opportunity to make a decision.
If you try a poor quality product you might be put off and miss out on something special. Therefore I recommend making your first purchase from a supplier which specializes yerba mate and sources the product from South America in an ethical and sustainable way.
The Tea Spot ticks all of these boxes and is my source for high-quality yerba mate along with its innovative Steepware (TM) to make it easy to prepare properly, along with a wide range of other teas.
Cultural significance of mate
Again, similar to the place that infusions of Camellia sinensis have in the cultures of China, Japan, Korea and the UK, mate has a huge social and cultural significance in the cultures in which it is found. Just as with tea, people often gather together simply to drink and share mate.
A common practice is to prepare mate in a container with a straw which is then passed around a group of friends, with the liquid being topped after every few mouthfuls.
It is now found more and more widely in supermarkets and beverage outlets in the UK, the USA and Australia, and the export market is booming. In these countries, it is often promoted as a health food, which brings me on to the next question.
Is yerba mate healthy?
Yes! Its nutrient profile is similar to Camellia sinensis but with even higher levels of antioxidants and nutrients. There is now plenty of scientific evidence that it has significant potential health benefits which have been scientifically verified.
- It contains caffeine: less than coffee but more than regular black tea, which can boost energy levels, improve alertness and reduce fatigue.
- It can increase the amount of fat burned during exercise, reducing the body’s need to burn carbohydrates.
- Related to these points, it may help you lose weight and burn more belly fat.
- It contains useful amounts of the dietary minerals manganese, magnesium and potassium as well as small amounts of vitamin C, vitamin E, zinc and selenium.
- It contains huge numbers of different polyphenols such as quercetin and rutin as well as other compounds such as phenolic acids which are all under investigation for their potential health benefits, especially in reducing cholesterol levels and stabilizing blood pressure, which would lower the risk of heart disease.
- It appears also to be an MAO inhibitor. MAO inhibitors were the first class of antidepressant to be marketed, having been developed in the 1950s and 1960s. Therefore it seems likely that this would account for yerba mate‘s reported effect on mood. A real note of caution here: if you are taking a prescribed MAO inhibitor it is vital that you talk to your doctor before trying yerba mate because there is a significant risk of a dangerous interaction between them as these drugs are very toxic in doses not much higher than the therapeutic dose.
Much more detail about The Health Benefits of Yerba Mate can be found on the Matero website.
Featured image: wyncel / pixabay