Yerba Mate-Argentina’s National Drink Gaining Popularity in the U.S. and Beyond

Argentina’s national drink, yerba mate (also called “Jesuits’ Tea), is an herbal
infusion or tisane made from a plant in the holly family (Ilex paraguariensis),
that is native to subtropical South America, and found in northeastern Argen-
tina, Bolivia, southern Brazil, Uruguay, and Paraguay.  Yerba mate was scientif-
ically classified by Swiss botanist, Moses Bertoni, who settled in Paraguay in
The indigenous Guarani and
Tupi people living in Southern Brazil and
Paraguay were the first to consume yerba
mate, as well as Spanish settlers in the late
16th century.  The consumption of mate
continued to spread to the River Plate, then
on to
 ArgentinaChile, Bolivia, and Peru in
the 17th century, becoming  Para- guay’s
main commodity.
Jesuits domesticated the yerba mate plant in
the mid 17th century, establishing planta-
tions in their Indian reductions in Misiones,
Argentina. However, they were expelled in
the 1770s, and their plantations fell into ruin,
taking their secrets of domestication with
In the 1930s when Brazil turned its attention to growing coffee, Argentina,
who to that point had been a major consumer of mate, took over the main
production, regrowing mate where the old Jesuits’ plantations had first been
located in Misiones Province.  Since then both Brazil and Argentina have vied
as top producer of mate, with Brazil currently producing 53% of the total
mate crop, followed by Argentina with 37%, and finally Paraguay with 10%.
The yerba plant is a shrub or small tree that can grow up to 15 meters tall.
Its leaves are evergreen, 7 to 11 cm long and 3 to 5.5 cm wide, and have
a serrated edge.  Its flowers are a greenish-white color with four petals.

Yerba mate contains the same three xanthines as found in tea:

 caffeine, theobromine, and
theophylline, only in different amounts.  Long believed to have medicinal properties by the
indigienous South Americans, mate also contains antioxidants, vitamins B1, B2, and C, as well as
minerals potassium, magnesium, and manganese.  Mate is believed to have many of the same
health benefits that are related to tea, such as aiding in some types of cancer and lowering
cholesterol.  Because of its caffeine, mate is also a popular morning beverage.
Yerba mate is grown and processed mainly in
South America in the Misiones and Corrientes
provinces in northern Argentina, as well as
Paraguay, Uruguay, and southern Brazil. Those
that harvest mate are called yerbateros.

After harvesting the branches are dried,
sometimes using a wood fire which
gives it a smoky flavor, similar to China’s

Lapsang Souchong or Russian Caravan
teas.  After drying, the leaves and some
times the twigs are broken up.
Mate can vary in strength, caffeine
levels, and other nutrients depending
on if the plant is male or female. Female
plants have a milder flavor and lower caffeine than male plants, but most areas of plant-
ed and harvested mate contain male plants.

Mate is prepared by steeping the dried leaves (and twigs)
in hot water (but not boiling). Drinking mate with friends is
an important social practice in Argentina as well as south-
ern Brazil and Uruguay, for people of all ages.  Mate is
often shared, drinking from a hollow gourd (or a hoof or
horn), using a metal straw called a bombilla which has a
filter on the bottom end placed in the gourd.

Just as coffee and tea houses are popular in Europe and the U.S., drinking mate together
with friends is an important social activity.  Similar to China’s

 gong fu ceremonysharing
mate has a ritual and its own set of rules.
One person acts as host (cebador), bringing, preparing, and
serving the mate and refilling the gourd (called a guampa).
The gourd is passed around usually in a circle, going clockwise.
Each person finishes the gourd then passes it back to the host
to be refilled. Mate can be reinfused many times, so the gourd
is usually passed until the water runs out.  When a person no
longer wants more mate he simply says gracias to indicate
he’s done.  It’s also considered bad manners to wipe the bom-
billa when sharing mate.

The flavor of mate is reminiscent of

 green tea with a strongly vegetal, herbaland grassy
flavor.  Mate is available either green or toasted, with the toasted more mild, slightly
spicy, and less bitter than green. 
 Flavored mate is also available with the mate leaves
blended together with another herb, such as mint.
Mate is available in several different versions.  In Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina it’s
available loose or in

tea bags (called mate cocida), and served sweetened, either hot or
iced, in 

shops and from street vendors.  An iced, sweetened version of toasted mate is also available as a noncarbonated
drink, either with or without fruit flavoring.
In honor of Argentinian tea culture, with mate as its national drink, Starbucks included a
mate latte on their menu when they opened their first outlet in Argentina.

There are over 200 brands of yerba mate on the market, most in Argentina, with about
ten brands being marketed worldwide.  The market leader of mate is Las Marias, with
slightly higher than 30% market share, with its leading brand, Taragui.  (See Amazon
links below to purchase yerba mate tea bags and/or loose mate).