Yerba mate is one of those health drinks that you feel like you should know, but are somehow unaware of. No worries, it's not a well known drink outside of South America, and has only been introduced to the U.S. in the past few years.
No one else knows about it, so I think it's high time we had ourselves a nice beginner's guide on yerba mate, since it looks like it's going to become wildly popular in the next few years.
Table of Contents
What is yerba mate ?
Yerba mate is a type of tea, in the same way herbal tea is a tea. It's an infusion of the Ilex paraguariensis plant, a type of holly plant, and provides a boost of energy similar to coffee, but in a smaller kick.
It's a very popular drink in South America, and initially from Paraguay.
Yerba mate is different from most other teas, since it's traditionally not strained, but continuously brewed. In this respect, it's very similar to the Gong Fu tea ceremony (using a Gaiwan).
It has its own traditional drinking vessel and ceremony, so it's actually a time-honored infusion. Some argue it's not a tea, and it's not coffee either.
For the purpose of this guide, yerba mate is a tea/infusion and will be discussed as such.
What is yerba mate made of ?
Yerba mate is made of the leaves and twigs of the Ilex paraguariensis plant. I know it sounds like a big name, but there's no other name aside from the Latin one to accurately pin it down.
It's a type of holly plant, and it's native to South America. The leaves grow all year round, and are harvested and dried in order to make the yerba mate infusion.
It usually comes in a chopped form, with the leaves and possibly some small twigs chopped to small sizes. Nothing else is added to this tea.
Where is yerba mate from ?
Yerba mate is native to South America. Originally from Paraguay, this plant became very popular in the rest of South America after the Spanish colonization in the 17th century.
Countries like Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil, Chile are chief consumers of this drink, and also grow the plant extensively.
Even if it's not a very well known tea outside of the Americas, it's got a large fan base in South America and is heavily consumed there. People drinking yerba mate as Westerners would drink coffee, just walking down the street, is a common sight.
How do you make yerba mate ?
Now, how do you go about making yerba mate ? It's simple enough, but you have to be careful when adding the leaves to the vessel, otherwise you'll get too messy.
Keep in mind that traditional yerba mate isn't measured in cups - as in one cup of yerba mate tea - but rather in steepings.
This is done by using a gourd and bombilla (straw). The gourd started out as an actual gourd, which was emptied and cured, and the bombilla is a wide metal straw, with a filter at the lower end.
This keeps out the large chunks of leaves, and allows you to sip the drink without much fuss.
What you do is add the dried leaves, add some hot water, let it infuse, drink everything up through the straw, and then add more water, and repeat. With each consecutive steep the leaves release more and more flavor, so this really is a ritual that can go on for a couple of hours.
So, to start off drinking yerba mate, you'll need:
- gourd and bombilla, I'll get to that in a minute
- as much mate leaves as needed to fill the gourd 2-3 of the way (usually 1.5 tablespoons)
- hot water at 90 C/194 F, in however much quantity you want to sip throughout the day
- a thermos to keep the hot water throughout the day
Traditionally there is no sugar or other flavorings added to the mate, just straight up mate flavor. Which can be overwhelming if you're not used to it, so give it some time to adjust.
First, start by adding the mate leaves into the gourd, and gently shake the gourd until all the inside is covered in fine leaves. You should have about 60-70% of the gourd filled with leaves.
This will also help separate the larger from the smaller ones, which will help with filtering.
Then, tilt your gourd a bit to the side, at a 45 degree angle. This is to rearrange the leaves, and leaves some 'clean' room for the metal straw to enter. You'll see in a minute.
Still holding the gourd at an angle, slowly pour the hot water into the gourd. You should pour where the gourd naturally allows you more space and there are less leaves. Slowly bring the gourd to normal position while pouring the water.
If everything went well, you should have an empty patch of water to the side of the gourd. This is where you'll insert the straw, again at an angle.
Let the drink steep for a few seconds, and then you're ready to drink. Remember that this needs to be topped off with hot water throughout the day, so a thermos is pretty much mandatory if you're planning to drink this over several hours.
A good thermos from MIRA Brands is going to keep your water hot for at least 12 hours, which is more than enough for a full run of mate during the day. You can find the thermos on Amazon here.
How to drink yerba mate
Drinking yerba mate is as much a practical thing as it is a social one. For one thing, yerba mate is praised for its energy boosting properties and as such is enjoyed as a continuous drink as the day goes on.
Of course, there are those who only drink it one cup at a time, at regular intervals throughout the day.
But the most common way of drinking yerba mate is to continuously sip it, for several hours and adding more leaves pr water as necessary.
Each steep releases more flavor and nutrients from the mate, so this really is a drink you can pull on all day.
Most of the time though, yerba mate is enjoyed in a social gathering. Meeting up in parks or in very beautiful and calm parts of nature is part of the tradition and ritual of drinking yerba mate.
Several people get together, and stare one gourd with just one bombilla. The gourd gets passed around, and this creates a bond between the people gathered there.
In regards to safety and hygiene, this tradition places the bond created between the people involved above any possible gross factor or diseases one may carry. And since it's usually done between friends or family, most people don't worry about it.
When offered the gourd, you should never stir the leaves. This is considered very impolite, since it disturbs how the leaves arranged themselves and only helps the bombilla plug when you pull through the straw.
You can always prepare your own yerba mate in your own gourd, and drink it by yourself. But sharing is the traditional way of consuming this drink, and bringing your own gourd to a gathering is rude in its own way.
About the yerba mate gourd
Let's talk a little about this gourd and bombilla, since I'm pretty sure you're confused by it. I was too, and it took me quite a bit of research to figure out just what they are, and why anyone would want to drink out of a gourd of all things.
Well, it turns out that yerba mate is old - at least 400 years old, if not more. Four hundred (ish) years ago was when it was introduced to other countries in South America.
And back them pottery was a thing, but not very well developed. So, through tradition, customs and general love for 'how things were done back then', the gourd became the only vessel from which to drink yerba mate, since it was the best available at the time.
The hard outer shell made it a great way to make sure it wouldn't break, and there is another factor. And it was named gourd since it's the fruit of the calabash plant, which looks a lot like a squash but has a very tough outer shell, like wood.
Gourds, after being fashioned into vessels, take on the flavor of the yerba mate but also impart their own slightly sweet flavor. Meaning a gourd that has been in use for the past year will provide a more flavorful steep than a fresh, new gourd.
Now, there's 3 main types of gourd normally used for mate: natural ones (from calabash), wooden ones, or synthetic ones like steel/plastic/aluminium/ceramic.
Traditionally, the natural ones are preferred since they're better for flavor. Seconds best are the wooden gourds, since they're not as good as the natural ones at absorbing the flavor of the mate, but they're still more responsive than stainless steel or ceramic.
The whole point of the gourd is to absorb as much of the mate flavor as possible, to enhance each subsequent cup you make.
However, in terms of hygiene and keeping everything sterile, some prefer stainless steel gourds, simply because they're easier to clean and have the guarantee of staying clean.
I'll provide you with options for both natural and stainless steel gourds, since I don't know which way you lean.
A natural gourd (comes with bombilla as well) is this one, from El Matero. It's a natural, from the actual calabash fruit, empty on the inside and does need to be cured after you receive it.
Sizes and patterns may vary slightly, since it depends on how the fruit grows and that cannot be completely controlled. It's handmade, so some variations are bound to occur, but the artistic effort is clear.
You can check the listing on Amazon here, and read the reviews as well.
If you're looking for a stainless steel gourd, then this one from Balibetov might strike your fancy. It comes in several colors, and it's a double walled stainless steel vessel. Comes complete with bombilla.
Can hold 6.5 oz of drink. Dishwasher safe, and the metal filter from the bombilla is removable for easier cleanup.
You can check the listing on Amazon here, and read the reviews as well.
Do you have to cure a mate gourd ?
If you'd rather make your own gourd, then yes you need to cure it. Otherwise it will fall apart much faster and won't be a good vessel.
After you've gotten your hands on an unripe calabash fruit, cut the top off so it resembles a rounded sort of mug. Scoop out the inside of the fruit, and let it dry out.
Prepare a serving of yerba mate, and let is sit in the gourd for 24 hours. This will cure the inside skin of the fruit, and the more bitter the mate the better it will do its job of curing the gourd.
The next day you should find the inside of the gourd has macerated, and the skin should come off easily. Empty the contents, and scrape the skin out with something like a spoon. It should come out nicely.
Rinse thoroughly, and prepare a second serving of mate. Let that one sit for 24 hours as well, and the next day after throwing it out and rinsing again, it should be ready for use.
Can you drink yerba mate without a gourd and bombilla ?
Yes, you can drink mate without the gourd or bombilla, though this will subtract from the experience, and even the flavor. While it's traditional to use the gourd when preparing the drink, some find it much too messy and would rather have a 'clean' approach to it.
To each their own, and I'll show you how to make yerba mate without the gourd and bombilla.
Using a French press
A French press can be used basically the same way as a gourd, in that you're going to keep topping off with water and drinking throughout the day.
To an empty French press, add a few tablespoons of mate, and then the 90 C/194 F hot water. Add the plunger, and let it sit for a couple of minutes before plunging.
Don't plunge all the way down, otherwise it will be difficult to add the new water. Only plunge far enough to keep the leaves down, but leaves some room for new water.
After you're done drinking the brew, add more water to the already plunged French press, and continue drinking.
Now, this system, or rather the theory behind this system can be used with other things than a French press.
For example a Gaiwan is a very small cup into which you add tea leaves, steep for a few seconds, and then pour out the contents to drink. Then you add more water, and repeat as much as you like.
You would need a Gaiwan with a very good mesh filter to keep out all the tiny particles of mate, since most Gaiwans are meant for large, full leaves, like the regular Chinese teas. It could still work in a pinch, though.
Another way you could replace such a thing is if you used a cold brew container, or a tea tumbler that's already for a filter in it to brew the tea and take it with you as you go. An 18 oz, very sleek and elegant one can be found on Amazon here.
If you add the leaves into the hot water, and then place the filter on, you'll trap the leaves inside the tumbler and can refill it with water as the day goes on, with no fuss in regard to the leaves.
Using a tea ball or filter
If you're rather have single-serve mate, or use a method that you probably already have the tools for, you can always just use a metal filter or strainer.
The only problem is that you're getting none of the natural, organic flavor that comes with the gourd and you're also going to make single serve mate most of the time.
Whereas mate is meant to be enjoyed in several steeps, so you'd have to reuse the same tea ball or filter several times.
Regarding how to use the tea ball, filter, or strainer, just make sure you get as much of the leaves into the water as possible. My best example would be with this Sweese tea mug from Amazon, which has a big metal filter that can sit in your cup as long as you want and you can just remove the filter when you want to drink.
Then when you're done place the filter back in, leaves still in the filter, and fill again with water. And there you go, a fresh new cup of mate.
What does yerba mate taste like ?
If you've never had yerba mate, then explaining the taste won't be easy. The closes thing to it is green tea, minus the severe astringency,
There is some bitterness, and it will become more and more bitter each time you steep the gourd. But there is also a vegetal flavor, which is really something you're going to need to get used to if you want to drink mate regularly.
If you haven't grown up with it, it's definitely an acquired taste, like vegemite or black licorice or cumin/fennel seeds.
Here's a good example of yerba mate that will let you discover just what it tastes like. This Cruz de Malta yerba mate comes in a 2 pack form, totaling an 2.2 lbs , but you can get a single pack as well if you like.
It's a large bag, but you're going to be drinking from it for several weeks, possibly months, depending on how much you end up liking yerba mate in general.
You can check the listing on Amazon here, and read the reviews as well.
Why is yerba mate bitter ?
Yerba mate is bitter due to several factors.
First, it's bitter due to the fact that it's just raw, green leaf steeped in hot water several times. very few plants are not bitter.
Second, it's got a whole load of antioxidants which, like in green tea, add a bitterness that can't be omitted when drinking this tea.
Third, yerba mate contains caffeine, which by itself is a very bitter element. It's also part of the reason coffee tastes so bitter since it's got the highest caffeine count of all things.
So bitterness in your cup of yerba mate is something that just is. Long-time fans or those raised on it just take it as it is, without any sugar.
How do you make yerba mate taste good ?
Aside from adding a bit of sugar, there's just a few things you can do. When adding sugar, keep it on the low since very sweet yerba can be very unpleasant and you're better off drinking it with just a bit of sugar.
If you're looking to drown out the bitterness, please understand that can't be done. You would need to much sugar or other flavorings the whole drink would taste bad.
As for whatever else you can add, a bit of lemon rind (just a bit) could help change the flavor of the mate. Others add a bit of milk to mellow out the bitterness, so I guess you can try that too.
But, do keep in mind that whatever you add to the mate when you brew it will reflect in the new cup you'll brew later, since the gourd (if natural or wooden) will absorb the flavor.
Yerba mate health benefits and side effects
Yerba mate contains a whole host of antioxidants, in fact rivaling green tea ! It's something of a debate, which tea is better for the health (green or yerba mate) but you're bound to get your daily fill of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants from a cup of yerba mate, especially if you sip on it all day long.
The tea contains these nutrients in a small amount, so you'd have to drink it continuously for several weeks or months in order to notice any effect. Long term use leads to clearer results.
The caffeine in yerba mate is lower than coffee, but higher than tea, averaging at about 85 mg caffeine/8 oz of drink. That's a whole lot if you're drinking several servings throughout the day, and continuously replenishing the leaves.
The caffeine helps your body's reflexes, and improves alertness, including mental focus. So sipping on this drink all day long is pretty much the best way of getting a continuous caffeine buzz.
And like regular tea, yerba mate does not jolt you awake, but rather helps you gently but definitely wake up, without the jitters and sweats.
Also because of the caffeine content (this thing's starting to look a lot like coffee) yerba mate helps with physical performance, in that the energy boost will help athletes perform better.
Yerba mate could also potentially reduce body fat, boost metabolism, and reduce appetite. This, along with a health meal plan, can help with weight loss and as such could be beneficial to the overall health of a person.
Low blood sugar levels and a boosted immune system have also been associated with yerba mate, though more research is still needed to completely confirm and set these facts in stone.
Most of these benefits come from the antioxidant count in yerba mate, as well as the caffeine level. Both are great for the human body since they help it operate at maximum potential.
Possible side effects of yerba mate include those of caffeine, such as jitters, heart palpitations, stimulating IBS symptoms, anxiety.
Other side effects could be a possible increased risk of developing cancer in the upper half of the torso, specifically the esophagus and the lungs.
And it may interfere with some medications, especially those that monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI) activity, like the medication prescribed for Parkinson's disease or depression.
Some muscle relaxants may be hindered by the caffeine content in yerba mate, so it's best to ask your doctor before taking this tea.
Yerba mate during pregnancy
If you're pregnant or breastfeeding, yerba mate may not be on the list of approved foods and drinks, since the caffeine content can influence the child's development.
This is mostly because aside from caffeine there is also a large amount of antioxidants that come with this tea, and it's best to ask you doctor about it.
Some caffeine is alright during pregnancy, like a small cup of coffee in the morning. But even so your doctor will probably ask you to keep track of the caffeine content in other foods and drinks, thins the caffeine can build up during the day, including from yerba mate.
Does yerba mate go bad ?
Not necessarily. Yerba mate, like regular tea, doesn't expire but rather ages. It can go bad if you store it in poor conditions, like leaving it completely exposed to the air (dries out and loses flavor), or in a very humid place where it might grow mold.
As such, I recommend keeping it in paper bags, or a clean mason jar, away from direct sunlight and heat.
You should still find it in good shape, even after a couple of years. The leaves should be olive green, with a matte sheen to them. The small twig parts would be light tan, and the whole bag or jar should still smell like fresh hay and green veggies.
If you're unsure, try smelling and looking at it. If it feels off, but you're not sure, taste a little on your tongue. If it doesn't resemble the mate taste you know, then it might just be bad.
Yerba mate is a drink of its own, with its own culture, traditions and it can very quickly become your best friend. Especially if you ever travel to South America and get to experience the culture first hand.
If you've never had mate before, then it's high time you did, since it seems everyone's in love with it.
If you want to know more about coffee or tea, feel free to check the related articles below. Who knows what else you might find ?