These dried, finely chopped leaves of the yerba mate plant are consumed in Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina, and Uruguay in an almost compulsive manner. Particularly in the latter two countries, the mate gourd seems to be a natural extension of people's hands.
For some South Americans, a well-prepared mate will replace a morning coffee just as well as a 5 o'clock tea. The best part? It's naturally caffeinated leaves give drinkers stimulation in the form of a balanced sense of focus and alertness—with no jitters or post-coffee crash—that lasts throughout the day.
Yerba mate, the term used to denote its dry form, is best consumed on its own as an energizing and nutrient-rich infusion, sipped through a filtered straw straight out of a mate gourd. But much like a Japanese tea ceremony, it's not as simple as one, two, three—there is a certain art to brewing a proper mate.
MUNCHIES went straight to the source for insight: the artisans and shopkeepers of the San Telmo street market in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Every Sunday, from dusk till dawn, these dedicated craft-makers and street-sellers offer their wares to passersby, powered by a thermos full of hot water and their trusty mate.
The Right Yerba Mate
Brewing a proper mate starts with the basic ingredient: the yerba mate.
"Caco," an artisan in his early 60s, sits alongside his friend Nestor every Sunday, sharing a mate and occasionally pausing his ritual to haggle with tourists.
His secret to the perfect brew? "Use proper yerba mate. Uruguayan yerba mate," he affirms. "And I should know—I'm Argentine!" he adds with a smirk, emphasizing a historical rift between the two countries.
Uruguayan yerba, he says, has no —or stems—and that is what makes it better. "Stems add no flavor; they only wash out the mate and weigh it down. Yerba mates without stems produce a more delicious and longer-lasting mate."
Yet, whether you're a veteran mate-drinker like Caco or a novice, after sipping on yerba mate for a long time—regardless of whether you add a bit of sugar or not—the flavor can get quite boring.
Guadalupe, a flower shop owner, has just the tip. Her Sundays are spent in good company, taking care of regulars and chitchatting with her friends Estela and Rosa, who work the stalls nearby, over a round of mates. With Guadalupe being Argentine, Estela originally from Brazil, and Rosa from Paraguay, this trio quickly becomes our best informants.
"Adding just a little spoonful of coffee to your mate adds a lot of flavor," Guadalupe reveals.
Estela offers up her own special Brazilian touch: "I like to add a bit of grated orange or lemon peel."
Mint and lemongrass are also good to spice up your mate, the women say.
Estela recalls the Brazilian chimarrão—their word for mate—typically consumed in the southern region of Brazil.
"The yerba is different, a very dark green," she explains. "Here, it's drier, more powdery. In Brazil, our yerba is more fresh." She uses her hands for emphasis: "Our mate gourds are huge, and our straws are broader in the bottom, to better absorb the type of yerba we use there."
"In Paraguay," Rosa jumps in, "we like our mate foamy. We also like it with a lot of herbs mixed in. The gourd has to have a narrow top: when the opening is too broad, the flavor escapes."
Back on the mean streets of the open-air market, we turn to Ayelen. In her early 20s, her tips reflect the eco-conscious trends of her generation. "I prefer organic yerba mate. It's better for your health and for the environment."
It's All in the Water
A common mistake made by novice mate-drinkers (this writer included!) is inundating their mate gourd with boiling water.
Nestor, Caco's mate-drinking buddy, weighs in. "Don't ever fill up the mate with water to the very top!" he adds with a sense of urgency that connotes sacrilege. "And always pour the water in the same spot—not just all around the mate."
Ayelen, the young artisan, concurs: "The water can't be scalding hot." For the perfect mate, "the temperature of the water is as important as the quality of the yerba," she asserts.
"I first pour in the yerba into the gourd, turn it around, and shake it around a bit to get the powder to settle on the upper part and not the bottom. So you don't choke with the yerba powder in your first sip," Ayelen continues. "Then I pour in a bit of cold water and I let it sit for a bit. Then I pour in a squirt of hot water, and let it sit again. Only then do I put in the mate straw and brew the mate."
If that sounds like an awful lot of effort, there's a simpler alternative: the increasingly popular and refreshing summer version of the traditional mate that is made with either cold juice (preferably powdered, store-bought) or icy water: the tereré.
"In Paraguay, the tereré is traditionally a mate made with very cold water, and infused with herbs," says Rosa.
Just prepare a mate and replace the almost-to-boiling-point hot water for your favorite Tang flavor mixed with cold water.
Gringos typically forget a very important step: classic mate gourds made out of pumpkins or wood—typically the most affordable option found at fairs like the San Telmo—have to be cured before their first use. Overlooking this step will first result in funky-tasting mates that absorb the flavors of the container; soon after, these will become moldy mate gourds that need to be thrown away.
Can't be bothered with curing a gourd? You're not alone. In the modern age, metal or even silicone mates have become completely acceptable.
Straw Placement for Dummies
The number-one thing that budding mate enthusiasts do that makes mate aficionados cringe is seeing them move the straw around in a feeble attempt to mix up the yerba once the mate has already been brewed.
The unspoken rule is that when the bombilla, or straw, goes in, it's never moved again until the mate round is completely over. As in, you move the straw again only when you're ready to dump the old, washed-up yerba.
Caco also has an excellent pointer: Cover up the mouth of the straw with your finger when you place it into the mate gourd, already filled two-thirds with yerba.
"If you put your finger on the tip of the straw, you place it in the yerba and the little water you poured in during the prep phase doesn't enter the straw immediately. This also blocks yerba powder and the like from getting into your straw."
Company and Tradition
Mate brings people together.
The ladies of the flower shop all agreed: There is nothing better than sharing a mate with friends, and there's nothing sadder than seeing mate pop up as a menu item in cafés throughout Buenos Aires.
Although drinking mate on one's own while at home or work is quite common, sharing it with people—the closer, the better—is part of the broader cultural experience. Traditionally, brewing the mate is the private step of the ritual: every person brews their mate based on knowledge passed down from older generations, or simply their own personal taste. Drinking the mate, though, is the social step of the ritual.
"Sharing a mate is a reason to talk, to have a chat," says Rosa. "Here, it's like drinking a coffee; you drink it to have a chat, among friends."
"And among family. In a couple, if one drinks mate, both drink mate. They become more than your husband or wife: they're your partner in every sense of the world. It unites people in friendship, like us, who spend every day here sitting around a mate," says Guadalupe, pointing at her friends.
"Having a mate is about the ceremony, about the sharing experience," adds Estela. "It's an intimate experience," informs the Brazilian. "For me, it's unthinkable to sit down with a friend without sharing a chimarrão. It's something that simply must be present."
"It's conducive to conversation, to talking about yourself, about your personal life. It's about friendship," confirms Guadalupe.
It is something private, that is brewed and sipped, often shared and passed around a circle, but never sold at a coffee shop—or purchased by locals at one, for that matter.
Curious about the virtues of yerba mate? Get a group of friends, acquire your kit, and host a true mate-drinking experience—great conversation and all.