The Pampas extend far and wide. In the distance, snow capped mountains make a stately backdrop. In your hand you grip a calabash gourd and take a long drink from the metal straw. The slightly bitter but thoroughly innervating liquid warms your stomach and lifts you back into the waking present. Mate is much more than just another infused tea. Like many teas it has a history that stretches back ages. But a tea culture and identity all its own.
Unlike Green or Black tea, mate is made from Yerba Mate. Yerba Mate is a type of holly, whose leaves are dried, chopped up and ground up into a mixture that almost resembles genmaicha. The leaves contain caffeine, hence mate’s popularity and widespread enjoyment around the world. Who could pass up on a nice caffeine kick, especially when you get to drink it in such a cool way? Mate is also believed to have a high amount of antioxidants, which can help slow down the effects of aging. The antioxidants also can help reduce inflammation. This makes mate a useful supplement to a healthy lifestyle. Mate has decent doses of vitamins B and C as well as potassium. For those who seek heart health, mate can aid in dilating the blood vessels and assist with circulation. Mate makes a helpful friend after a night of drinking, too. Some of the compounds and nutrients in the yerba plant can help protect and relieve your liver. Sounds like a winning drink to me! On Saturday and Sunday mornings, that would be a good go-to beverage after a night out.
Mate’s history is fascinating as well. Mate was first enjoyed by the Quechua, Guarani and Tupi people of South America. Here, mate may have played a very important role in these Pre-Columbian cultures up until and even after the arrival of the Spanish. During the colonial period, the drink was widespread both among native people and the Spanish colonists. Mate became a cash crop for Spanish plantations and by the 17th century, the Jesuit order became a dominant force in the competitive yerba mate market. But this would be halted by the expulsion of the Jesuits throughout many European Imperial holdings. This resulted in their secretive domestication process and plantations to decline into disuse. In the following centuries the top producers of mate would shift and change following economic changes and wars. Today the top producers of mate are Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay respectively. While Uruguay gets the honorable mention of being the top consumer of mate. Mate helps to inform and build a sense of identity and cultural pride in Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil and Uruguay even into the present day.
Now for what makes mate mate. The gourd and the straw. Speaking candidly, I must admit, I am quite taken by mate as it is so different from the tea I normally drink, and certainly far different than the way I drink it! I may drink my matcha out of a bowl, but mate is one of a kind with it’s own method of consumption. Though mate can be enjoyed form other types of cups, the gourd is the traditional method. And sometimes the way the yerba leaves are added has a special ritual as well. Sometimes when adding the leaves, one may cover the opening of their cup or gourd with their hand and give it a series of shakes and jostles in order to specially arrange and settle the leaves. This way the yerba is packed in a way that allows the drinker to get the most drink for the least amount of particles per sip. Next, one may choose to insert their silver or stainless steel straw. This is called a bombilla and can be applied into dry yerba or with the addition of some cool water to help pack the yerba. This is determined by preference. An air of easy freedom I admire about mate culture. Next for the brewing! I am told the water should not be boiling. Nor should it be too cold. It should be “mate”. The drink seems to have a life of its own. It is admirable and dignified.
Mate has its own Carnival of incarnations as well. The traditional hot mate, but there is also mate prepared with milk. There is iced mate known as terere which I have tried years and years ago. Though, admittedly, the circumstances surrounding me trying mate in this role are fuzzy and mundane. The drink itself I remember. I couldn’t forget it. The way it was presented. In a tall sterling steel cup. The condensation made it sheen in the dim lights of the restaurant. The wood-hewn table was like a throne for the regal cup. I hadn’t seen something like it before. The bombilla straw jutted out from the rim of the cup. It was elegantly designed like a Celtic knot. It had the bearing of something a wizard or some kind of mythical figure would drink from. The taste was incredibly sweet if I recall correctly. This variation had been infused with hibiscus. Perhaps it was not a pure mate per say, and I certainly was not a gaucho, herding cattle out on the Pampas. But the experience alone was something I could not forget. Even in my mundane setting in my mundane way, there was something extraordinary in this first encounter with mate.
And that seems to be the air of mate as a drink. It is both of the mundane and supernatural world. It is enjoyed by all classes within society, in the respective countries it is produced and mainly consumed. From the special leaves to the special straw, mate is its own Way of Tea. It is also versatile in its preparation and consumption. The bombillais also an infuser in addition to being a special mode of expression for the drinker. With this in mind, mate has the same fluidity (pun intended) as any other infusion device or tool used in tea today. Often times we use an infuser whether it be a stick or ball, while for mate, the straw achieves this purpose right in the cup. Mate is said to be quite strong for new drinkers. But how could one pass up the caffeine, antioxidants and other health bestowing properties? Simple! Just mix in the herbs or fruit you want right in the cup! Your bombillacan do the rest. Just be sure to sift some of the particles so they don’t fill up your straw when you insert it into your cup.
So there I am, sitting on my horse on the Pampas. My amigosand I are herding cattle and living a life of rugged freedom. Okay, maybe not. But it is fun and much easier to imagine when enjoying a cup of mate. I may not be saddling up a horse tomorrow, or preparing to spend long hours on the plains, but I certainly will be in search of my next chance to try more mate. We should give our thanks to the ancient Ways of Tea of the Quechua, Guarani and Tupi peoples and their descendents, in bringing this superb and one-of-a-kind drink to the world.
Yerba Mate, History of Yerba Mate