Yerba Mate: South America’s Most Social Drink

Yerba Mate: South America’s Most Social Drink

Updated August 3rd, 2020.

Yerba mate is a drink you may have already heard of, probably because it is everybody’s favourite South American drink!

Whilst most famous for being the national drink of Argentina, travellers to Uruguay and Paraguay will also be familiar with this tasty beverage. In fact, it is pretty much impossible to visit any of these countries and leave a mate virgin!

Mate (pronounced mah-tay) is a must-try, but not many people know that this drink is steeped in tradition and has a long history. This means one does not simply drink mate. There is a whole load of etiquette surrounding the consumption of mate and you need to know the rules if you are going to avoid screwing it up. Read on to find out everything you need to know to become everybody’s best mate mate! 

What is Mate? 

Also known as yerba mate, cimarrón and chimarrão, mate is a hugely popular caffeine-infused drink. It is popular in the South American countries of Uruguay, Paraguay, Argentina and it is also consumed in some areas of Brazil

Mate has an earthy taste which is somewhat bitter. Chances are it is unlike any drink you’ve ever tried before! It is made by drying out the leaves of the yerba mate plant and then soaking them in hot water. 

The drink is served in an ornate mate cup, which is commonly made from wood, glass or Calabash gourd (a type of plant). However, in Paraguay, guampa (hollowed out bulls horn) is also a popular choice of mate cup. Somewhat confusingly, the container or gourd that the mate drink is served in, is also referred to as mate. 

Guampa, mate cup
Traditional guampa are often used as mate cups in Paraguay.

Yerba mate is drunk through a metal straw, known as a bombilla. This straw has a filter at the bottom which separates the mate infusion from the leaves and stems. Bombillas can be made from several different materials, although stainless steel is the most popular in modern-day society. 

Silver bombillas were traditionally used by the wealthy classes but as they are such a fantastic conductor of heat, they have fallen out of favour. It is very easy to burn yourself when drinking from a silver bombilla! 

Bombilla straws for sale
An assortment of bombillas.

How do you make Mate? 

Mate will be made differently depending on the preferences and teachings of your cebador (male server) or cebadora (female server). Many cebadors will have different opinions about when to add the hot water and what temperature is best. The following is a DIY guide to making mate:

  1. Add the yerba leaves to the container until it is around just over half full. 
  2. Lightly shake and tilt the gourd so that the leaves coat the sides and mix. By moving the leaves, you should bring the most powdery to the top which will help you avoid sucking them up through the bombilla!
  3. Keep the gourd at an angle so most of the leaves are gathered on one side. 
  4. Add a little cold water and allow time for it to be absorbed. This will help the flavour to begin to develop. 
  5. Put the bombilla in at an angle, filter at the bottom. Do not move it around as you fill the container. 
  6. Top up the gourd with hot water. Never use boiling water for mate. The ideal temperature is between 70-80 degrees Celsius. 
  7. Drink from the bombilla until you have consumed the entire drink. 

A Brief History of Mate

Mate is believed to have originated in the south of Brazil where it was traditionally consumed by the indigenous population. As a result of Spanish colonisation, mate spread to Paraguay in the late 1500s before reaching Argentina around a hundred years later.  At this time, mate became the major commodity in Paraguay. 

In the 1650s, Jesuits began to organise plantations in the Misiones province in Argentina. This sparked a trade war between the Paraguayans and the Argentinians. After the banishment of the Jesuits in the 1770s, their plantations fell into ruin. Whilst the production of mate was still hugely important to Paraguay, the Paraguayan War devastated the country. This meant that financially, it was no longer viable to produce such quantities of mate. As a result, Brazil became the number one producer.

Brazil and Argentina continued to domesticate yerba mate plantations into the early 20th century. However, in the 1930s, Brazil decided it was going to focus its attention on coffee. Argentina continued to consume the most mate of any other country and eventually fought its way back to being the top producer. It even went as far as to reestablish the plantations in the Misiones province that the Jesuits had started all those years earlier. 

Claims to be the world’s largest modern-day mate producer vary, with some sources saying Brazil produce the most and others claiming Argentina holds the crown.

Buenos Aires, Argentina
Argentina consumes the most yerba mate of any country in the world.

Health Benefits of Yerba Mate

Disclaimer: The team at South America Backpacker are not doctors or nutritionists. Whilst this article has been thoroughly researched, it is important to recognise that the following health claims are just that, claims. Much more research is needed into the effects of consuming yerba mate before these claims can be 100% proven. 

  • Provides an energy boost

Containing 85 mg of caffeine per cup (around the same as a standard can of Red Bull), mate will make you feel less tired and increase your energy levels as a result. 

  • Rich in antioxidants

Yerba mate contains a number of different nutrients and antioxidants including Xanthines (stimulant compounds such as caffeine), Saponins (compounds with anti-inflammatory properties), Polyphenols (large group of antioxidants) and Caffeoyl derivatives (health-promoting antioxidants). 

  • Can help you lose weight 

As with anything high in caffeine and low in sugar, there are claims that consuming mate can reduce your appetite and boost your metabolism, thereby helping you lose weight. 

  • May boost immune system 

Due to the presence of saponins in mate, the drink is believed to have anti-inflammatory properties which could boost your immune system. 

  • Great for the digestive system

Mate has a long history of being used to treat diarrhoea, constipation and indigestion. 

  • Helps with concentration 

Owing to its caffeine content, yerba mate can help with your mental focus, meaning it is a great drink to enjoy if you’re studying. 

Yerba mate tea in bag
Yerba mate tea is believed to have numerous health benefits.

Yerba Mate Etiquette 

In South America, yerba mate is far more than just a drink. It is a social and cultural tradition which brings families and friends together. Being offered mate is a sign of respect and in many instances, a great way to make new friends on the road.

There is much more to mate than enjoying the drink in a group of friends though. Over the centuries, the art of sharing mate has been passed down through generations. In fact, many of the traditions we still see today have been commonplace in mate circles across South America for years! 

Here we will learn about the fundamental mate etiquette that you need to know to participate in a yerba mate circle. Whilst mate rituals do vary slightly by country, these rules are pretty much universal and will impress any local! 

8 Mate Sharing Rules 

  1. Never help yourself to mate

In every mate sharing circle, there will be a designated server. This person has the title of cebador. In family circles, it may be a specific person who has held the role for a long time. This person is in charge of administering the mate and ensuring that everybody gets their turn. Always wait to be offered the mate by the cebador, never just help yourself. Everyone in the group will share mate from the same container. 

Mate drink next to keyboard
Drinking mate is a social ritual and it is important to know the rules!

  1. The cebador always has the first mate poured

The first mate poured will always be the most bitter and strongest in flavour. Traditionally, the cebador will always consume this first cup. This allows them to tweak the temperature or sweetness before offering the drink to the group. However, historically, this was done to prove that the cebador means no harm to their guests. This is because occasionally, mate circles were used to poison enemies! 

  1. The mate will be passed clockwise

The cebador will always pass the mate cup clockwise. As the first pour of the drink is the strongest, aim to sit on the server’s left side if you prefer a stronger flavour. This means that the mate will come to you earlier than if you sit on the right side. The mate should always be passed with the right hand because to pass with the left shows a disrespect for the person receiving the drink. Whilst this is most applicable to the cebador, the rule applies to everyone within the circle. 

  1. Don’t touch the bombilla

The bombilla should never be used to stir the mate. In fact, just don’t touch it at all. Playing with the bombilla can cause the herbs to get caught in the filter and spoil the drink. Touching the bombilla is an insult to the cebador as it implies they have done a bad job of brewing the mate. 

  1. Drink the full cup and don’t nurse the drink

You should always drink the full cup of mate and don’t be afraid to slurp at the end! Be aware that nobody else can drink until you’ve finished. To be polite (and stop any embarrassing comments from your fellow guests), aim to finish the mate within around 2-3 minutes. Not only is it selfish to keep people waiting but the water will continue to lose temperature, arguably making it less enjoyable for those yet to drink. The cebador will refill the mate once you’ve returned it and hand it to the next person.

  1. Always pass the mate back to the cebador

You must never pass the mate on to the person next to you. The cebador always distributes the mate so you must hand the gourd back to only them.

Man pouring mate in park
The cebador is the only person who pours and serves the yerba mate.

  1. Only say gracias when you don’t want more mate 

This is a bit counter-intuitive for all of us English speakers who say no thanks as a way of declining. In mate cultures, you only ever say thank you to the cebador when you are finished drinking the mate. This is less intrusive than interrupting the whole conversation to announce that you don’t want anymore. If you are happy to continue enjoying the drink, pass the gourd back and stay silent. This means you will receive another pouring. 

  1. If you are sick, always politely refuse the mate

The yerba mate sharing circle always garners a few raised eyebrows from certain travellers. After all, you are all sharing the same straw, how unsanitary! First off, never say this to a local. Sharing the bombilla is a mark of respect and you should never bring up hygiene. Secondly, (and pretty obviously), if you’re feeling ill, you should politely refuse to be involved in the sharing circle. Making everyone in the group sick is not a good way to make friends!

Did you know…? In Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and southern Brazil, mate is consumed six times as frequently as coffee!

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