Tasting Yerba Mate on the Southern Cone

After college I was determined not to be shackled to a cubicle all day, so I flew down to Argentina to complete a TEFL course and start my life as a foreign English teacher.

Buenos Aires was one of the top expat locations at the time. The exchange rate was excellent and the city was a palatable mix of European culture and South American vivacity.

My glamorous room and study area.

While slogging through the CELTA — the hardest of all TEFL courses — I lodged in a noisy, ramshackle building with a bunch of local and international students. For two months, I slept in a bunk, sharing a room with three other guys. By contrast, my CELTA fellows were all staying in comfortable extended stay hotels. Each morning, they would show up washed, rested, and ready for a long day of teaching practice, and I would wonder if I should just splurge to get a good night’s sleep.

I stuck it out, though, and there were some upsides to my housing situation. I was improving my Spanish, and I got to meet some real Argentines and other South Americans.

One afternoon, after a long day of classes, I walked through the courtyard and spotted the two Chileans. The guy and girl were sitting at a table with what looked to me like an oversized pipe. They called me over, and I asked them about their suspicious contraption. Those green flakes weren’t marijuana, they explained with a laugh; they were just the innocuous yerba mate, a stimulating local beverage similar to coffee or tea.

They had packed a heaping quantity of the yerba mate into the gourd (which was also called a mate, confusingly). The pipe was really just a metal straw, or bombilla, with small holes of filter out the fine grains.

Typical mate setup, minus the thermos.

The Chilean guy filled the gourd with water from a thermos, and proceeded to drink it down in less then ten seconds. Then he refilled it and passed it on to his companion. She let the water cool for a little longer before drinking, and then passed it on to me.

I pulled in a mouthful of the hot liquid. Bitter, smoky, grassy, I tolerated it and even managed to swallow it, but soon my head was squirming and I had to hold back a gag by shaking my head. The Chileans laughed.

“You’ll get used to it,” the guy said. “It’s an acquired taste.”

As we poured more rounds and passed the gourd back and forth, the mate rapidly became lighter and easier to drink, and then lost all flavor.

“It’s done,” the Chilean guy said.

“So what now?”

“We refill and start again.”

“Do you want to try mate con azúcar [with sugar]?” the girl said.

“No!” the guy said, pounding a fist on the table and smiling. “This is not correct. This is for children. I don’t like it.”

The Chilean girl gave him a look and poured a couple heaping teaspoons of white sugar over the fresh mate.

“You go first.”

It was easier to drink, but only because the bitterness was overloaded with artificial sweetness. Actually, after the first round I had already gotten used to the flavor a bit, and was beginning to like it. I announced my preference for the plain, traditional way, which pleased my Chilean friends.

So I’d become a mate drinker, and I keep up the habit to this day.

Mate’s flavor is somewhat akin to hops. You definitely feel the that you’re drinking a plant. There’s an earthiness that isn’t present in coffee or even green tea.

The effects are much like coffee’s — improved mood, focus and energy — but with less anxiety and no coffee breath. “Mateine,” as the active chemical is known, tends to give you a clearer mind than caffeine. In my experience, there is less of a crash, and you have to drink a lot more to get the same jittery or twitchy effects.

Native to the southern cone, the yerba mate plant is an important part of the national heritage of all of the countries in the region. The indigenous peoples consumed it, and the Europeans adopted it soon after arriving.

People relaxing with mate — a typical sight all throughout Argentina.

In Argentina in particular, mate is a big part of both the rural and urban culture. Gauchos take breaks from ranching cattle with a round of mate on the open fields. In the busy cities, you will invariably see families at the park with a gourd or two and the accompanying thermos.

There are, however, a few areas where the traditional habits could use some reform. Argentines like to drink it piping hot, which has led to high rates of mouth and esophageal cancers. Furthermore, most of the mate consumed in Argentina is a smoked variety. Smoked products might taste good, but they can be full of harmful carcinogens.

This is all unfortunate because yerba mate is a very nutritious. It contains vitamins A, C, E, and various B vitamins, as well as calcium, manganese, iron, selenium, potassium, magnesium, phosphorus, and zinc. Drinking mate is like drinking a vegetable. If you were starving and had to choose between mate and green tea, mate would be the better choice.

My own way to counteract these negatives is pretty simple: I avoid bringing the water to a complete boil before pouring it into the thermos and I drink one of the non-smoked varieties of yerba that Guayaki sells.

While I prefer using the mate y bombilla, mostly for nostalgic reasons, you can also brew it just like a loose leaf tea for a much lighter flavor and the same health benefits.

Here are some links to get started:

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