During my explorations, I’ve come across Yerba Mate so many times, that I just had to research this more. So I set about finding out everything I could about this specialty brew. Ok so it’s not quite tea, but here’s everything you need to know.
So what is Yerba Mate? Yerba mate (maté), pron. Yur-ba mah-tay is a species of the Holly Family (Aquifoliaceae), native to subtropical South America. The plant is harvested and brewed similar to tea, to make a specialty beverage popular throughout South America.
But let’s take a deeper dive into this subject, here I’ll take you from start to finish, from growing to preparation, to drinking it and more … everything I know, condensed into one (hopefully) helpful page!
Yerba Mate Origins
As far as anyone understands it, the indigenous Guaraní were the first to consume Mate. It soon spread to the Tupí people who dwelled in southern Brazil and Paraguay. It increased in consumption during European colonialism.
From the late 16th Century in Spanish-occupied Paraguay, Mate consumption continued to spread through to the 17th century and on to Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, and Chile.
It soon grew to become an important commodity alongside the likes of tobacco. By the mid 17th Century plantations were established which quickly spread through to Argentina and this is when the competition really began to increase.
Mate production was severely damaged after the Paraguayan war from 1864-1870, leaving much of the land in ruins, and some territory by Argentina and Brazil. This meant Brazil then became the largest producer of Mate with over 50% production, and almost 40% produced in Argentina, leaving Paraguay just 10%.
Further change later meant Brazil turned to produce Coffee, mainly leaving Argentina to become the prime producer. As Argentina was the dominant consumer anyway I guess this worked out well. These days the mantle for the most production varies mostly between Argentina and Brazil.
This isn’t the case in North America though, here’s what they drink in the USA.
The Yerba Mate Plant (Ilex Paraguariensis)
Yerba Mate is an evergreen tree that grows in the subtropical region of South America. Or to narrow it down further it’s mainly grown in Argentina, the Southern area of Brazil as well as Uruguay and Paraguay.
Yerba mate, as mentioned is part of the family of Aquifoliaceae of which Holly is a member, and in fact, there are around 550 variants within this family of plants, of which only two or three are used for mate/maté.
In the wild, it grows up to 8 meters, 26 feet tall. But it has been known to grow as high as 18 meters (60 feet) in height.
It has thick, dark green oval-shaped leaves of around 5 inches long with a serrated edge. The plant blooms between October and December with clusters of white, small flowers. Between March and June, it produces a fruit that is small, round, and red to dark red in color. Each fruit is embryonic and contains 4 or 5 small yellow seeds which are scattered by birds and, if grounded, can take a while to germinate.
Climate and Environment for Yerba Mate
As a subtropical plant growing where there is significant annual rainfall, Yerba mate is accustomed to 1.2 meters (about 4 feet) of rainfall per year. It can withstand temperatures down to 21°F, or -6°C. It thrives in altitude areas near to water sources such as rivers, and where the soil is more acidic, with a high PH level up to pH6.8.
Where Can You Grow Yerba Mate?
It is possible to grow Yerba Mate outside South America and this is being done in controlled environments, where the climate is close to that which the plant is familiar with, or where it can be replicated.
Whether you’re in the US, UK or Australia, or anywhere else, as long as you can maintain reasonable control of the plants’ climate and conditions, then it is possible to cultivate Yerba Mate. If you’re looking to grow crops on a large scale this may pose some challenges. Read on to discover why.
Like most plants, the environment is pretty crucial in terms of how well your Yerba Mate plant will develop. If you’re looking to just grow it as a pot plant, indoors, near a window then fine, go ahead. Otherwise, I’d recommend looking at your location on a zonal map to provide a gauge. For example, I’ve added a zone map below for the USA, this may offer some help on what to expect from your own cultivation.
Cultivation and Propagation
Be prepared for a long wait before you get a harvest from your Yerba Mate plant. Typically they can be harvested after around 2 to 3 years of cultivating.
First propagating can be accomplished from the seedlings. However, it’s a difficult task as the seeds rapidly lose their ability to germinate and need rooting pretty quickly. Unless that is they go through some extensive pretreatment first to maintain them ready for germinating.
So if you’re thinking of buying Mate seeds be sure they’re processed first or are recently harvested.
Where to Buy Yerba Mate Seeds and Plants
Propagating can be difficult, and hit and miss to some degree. However, if you want to grow from seeds, then it’s not something that tends to be available off the shelf at your local garden store, but you can get them online at Amazon here. This will get you around 10 seeds. But, as with the plant below, they do also tend to come with additional growing and maintenance guides.
From what I’ve learned it’s far easier to purchase a pre-cultivated Yerba Mate plant, again it’s not likely to be in your local shop, you may find it in some select medicinal shops, or you can check Amazon here for the latest price. It tends to be between $10 to $35 depending on the size of the plant. Still, that’s cheap to potentially get unlimited Yerba Mate …albeit a couple of years down the line.
If you’re cultivating cuttings, then ensure they’re semi-woody cuttings from late summertime. You’ll also need to treat them with rooting hormones to give them the best chance.
From what I can gather, there may be some success gained by dipping the cuttings into 50% water and acetone solution – and then use the rooting hormone. Then bed the cuttings into a perlite and peat moss mix.
How To Grow Yerba Mate
If you want to grow Yerba Mate outside South America, here are the basic requirements you should follow:
- Soil: Yerba Mate prefers loose, sandy soil on the acidic side, up to pH6.8.
- Lighting: Requires full or partial sunlight. Full Sunlight offers the best results.
- Watering: Allow the soil to visibly become dry between watering, then saturate.
- Temperature: For maximum growth, maintain a temperature above 60°F. Temperatures down to 30°F can be tolerated, but should not be sustained for any great length of time.
- Humidity: Yerba Mate can tolerate lower levels of humidity, but ideal humidity needs to be held at 50%.
- Fertilizer: Seeds require a moderately balanced fertilizer, for example, 15.15.15 or 7.9.5. Apply weekly, or every other week from Spring till the fall.
- Pruning: To help create a dense specimen, pinching the tips of the expanding growth. They will have a habit of reaching out in growth, cutting and pruning will help to control this. Also, the trimmed foliage can be used to make the brew.
- Ground Care: Ensure weeds do not become an issue around the plant and risk smothering it during the early stages.
- Disease/Insect Control: Avoid exposure to other plants infected with scale or mealybugs. Otherwise, Yerba Mate is a hardy plant and are largely unaffected by other insects or diseases.
- Notes: It can take around 1-2 years before leaves are able to be harvested in any great numbers. To increase leaf production follow the guidelines on temperature and humidity and maintain as much full sunlight as possible.
Size and Shape of the Trees and Leaves
Exposure to sunlight largely dictates the shape and size of the leaves. Within its natural habitat of subtropical forest. The Yerba Mate tree has developed longer, slender trunks for faster growth to reach sunlight. Along with a larger sized leaf.
Whereas in controlled cultivated environments, trunks and branches are pruned to create a lower, more accessible shrub or bush. Like tea plants, these bushes are harvested by hand during each season.
Soil type, in terms of mineral base, can also affect the eventual taste that the leaves and stems produce.
Growing Yerba Mate Organically
One of the challenges facing the organic growth of Yerba Mate is controlling weed growth without the use of herbicides. In its natural forest environment, dense foliage makes it difficult for weeds to populate at ground level.
Therefore, in order to grow organic Yerba Mate successfully, you may want to consider similar growth environments. For more information, refer to the General Information on Organic Standards and Certification.
Yerba Mate Manufacture / Processing
There are similarities between the processing of tea and that of the Yerba Mate plant, so some of the following processes you may recognize.
There are varying reports around when the tree can be harvested, but the exact timings depend largely on climate variations, region, altitude, etc. It’s generally accepted that Yerba Mate is ready to harvest when the plant reaches four years old.
Also, the exact process varies depending on the region it’s grown and the strength and type of mixture desired. It takes around three kilos of Plant to create one kilo of Yerba Mate.
After carefully selecting the right seeds from the strongest and best mature Yerba Mate plants, life really begins in a vivarium, or nursery. Where sheltered from direct sunlight at this stage, the seedlings go through a multiplication process.
When they reach between nine and twelve months, the saplings are transferred to the field. Prior to transplanting the seedlings, the fields are thoroughly and deeply plowed, to produce light, ‘airy’ soil with good drainage.
Around the age of four, the plants are ready for their first harvest.
2. Harvesting / Picking
Mate harvesting is usually carried out at the end of the winter months, starting in April and continuing till September.
Harvesting occurs bi-annually, so the trees are allowed to fully recover between crop gathering. For this reason, many plantations work on a crop rotation basis.
The leaves stems and uppermost branches of the Yerba Mate plant are harvested. At this stage, the harvested pieces are still largely in the form of a short stem with up to a dozen leaves still attached – similar to hedgerow trimmings.
The next stage involves drying out the harvested brushes. Much like tea, Yerba Mate contains enzymes that allow the plant to oxidize after picking and which slows down the rate of decay.
In ages past, this process was carried out by passing the heat from ovens through a tunnel system over the leaves. However, now in more modern practices, they’re now passed by conveyor belts through industrial dehumidifiers that flash heat the leaves. As well as blasting them with heat to a point where decay stops, they also dry the plant to reduce the water content of the leaves, by around 20% of their original weight.
4. Secado (Drying)
The stems are then moved to a second heat process called Secado. This is a more moderate heat and can last for up to 20 hours, further drying out the leaves and stems.
Yerba Mate Chanchada is a sub-product. The plant by this stage has reached the fully desired level of drying. The oxidation process has now prevented further decay of the plant and it is ready for long-term storage.
Chanchada then undergoes a ‘thick crush’ process to further reduce the size of the leaves and stems. It is then packed into special porous 100kg bags and is ready for storage.
6. Beneficio (Storage)
Yerba Mate Chanchada is stored for up to two years, undergoing regular testing for quality. At a correctly selected point, the plant is considered to have had sufficient time to develop its full potential for aroma, color, and appearance and is moved on to the next stage.
Milling usually involves large cylindrical machines with rakes that tear and break the stems and leaves to a finer measurement. They’re then separated out into their respective pieces.
This is where branding plays a part. Each brand would now differ in terms of the intensity of milling and separations that contain either more sticks, leaves, or powder. Plus any blending with other ingredients, are undertaken at this stage.
The Brazilian national standard levels below denote the three levels of mix, of stems vs leaves. In essence, the greater the number of leaves, the stronger the end product will taste.
Padrão Naciona (PN)
- PN1 = 70% leaves / 30% stem.
- PN2 = 60% leaves / 40% stem.
- PN3 = 50% leaves / 50% stem.
The final product is then packaged into branded packaging and labeled with authentic certification labels. It is now ready for shipping.
The process is a very natural one, no chemicals are used. It’s almost as process-intensive as some teas and takes thousands of people hours to get the product to this stage.
You can see the entire production process here. Or watch the video below…
Is Yerba Mate a Herbal Tea or Tisane?
This is where opinions are divided, however, the overwhelming view is no. Yerba Mate stands as a beverage of its own.
The reasons for this are…
- True Tea is a beverage from the plant Camellia Sinensis. I wrote an article all about Tea which describes tea in more detail. To be called tea it must be a cultivar of the original species of the tea plant.
- Tisanes and Herbal Teas are called so because they are infused with a mixture of other ingredients such as peppermint or fruit. Yerba Mate can also be made into an infusion, but in its original form, it is just the plant. So, if we’re being purist then Yerba Mate is NOT an infusion either and therefore not a Tea or Tisane.
- The reason Yerba Mate is often included in the same category as tea, or herbal tea, is simply one of convenience and familiarity – because of the way it is similarly prepared and consumed. In the same way that Bubble Tea is also largely placed in the same bracket.
Preparation & Steeping
What You Will Need To Make Yerba Mate
I’ve added some of these to my Tea-ware Pages, so if you just want to get started you can look at my preferred selection. There’s also a starter kit there for a quick and easy start-up! But however you get the equipment, this is the basics of what you’ll need.
Kettle: of course, any kettle that boils water will suffice. There are some now manufactured in South America that includes a temperature setting for ‘mate’
Flask (optional): This is optional but advisable as you will need to keep adding to your Gourde, and the temperature ideally needs to be kept the same. Many in South America carry large flasks so they can keep topping up their Gourde through the day.
Gourd: Also called a ‘mateor guampa’. Or in Brazil, it is ‘cuia’, or ‘cabaça’. A specially designed vessel for holding your Yerba Mate. They come in all shapes, sizes, and, materials and it’s not unusual to have a collection of them. Traditionally you drink out of a hollow shaped Gourd known as a Calabash. The Gourd goes through a curing process that removes any residue from the manufacturing process along with any bitter gourd flavor.
Bombillo (Bombisha): A special straw for drinking through, it has a perforated end to filter the drink from any Yerba Mate residual dust, stems, or leaves. Traditionally, the straw was made of Silver. In fact even further back, hollow cane shoots were used. Now though, modern materials are used, including stainless steel and silicon.
How Many Spoons of Yerba Mate Should I Add?
Domestic teaspoons and tablespoons can differ in size, however, as a guide, you should use about 4 Tablespoons of Yerba Mate per Cup, which equates to 8 to 10 teaspoons. Assuming it’s an average size Gourd or, other vessels. The better measurement is to fill up the Gourd according to the instructions below…
There are variations in preparing and brewing Yerba Mate, but they mostly follow similar lines. Here are the very basic instructions for consuming Yerba Mate:
- Bring a kettle of water to near boiling point, or boil the kettle and let it rest for five minutes.
- Fill the Gourd to about ⅔ to ¾ full with Yerba Mate. Add any herbal infusions you desire at this point.
- Blocking the top with the palm of your hand, turn the gourd upside down and shake. This will remove dust particles that will stick to your palm. This also helps prevent the bombilla from getting blocked.
- The small stems will now be at the top and the larger ones at the base, invert the gourd to a near sideways angle so you can see the bottom down one edge inside.
- Bring the gourd back to a near-standing position, being careful not to ‘landslide’ the mate inside. The smaller particles will be filtered by the larger stems as it gets closer to the straw filter.
- Pour in around two tablespoons of cold water. This ‘Dummy water’ prepares and opens the mix ready for infusion and helps to bring the nutrients to life. It also prevents scolding. Wait for a few minutes.
- Lay your Bombilla (straw) into the tilted mix filter side facing inward. Be sure to place your thumb over the top opening of the straw to prevent any draw-in of smaller particles.
- Fill up the gourd almost to the top with your pre-prepared hot water Maximum 175°F, or about 80°C. Too hot and you’re in for a bitter, over-strong infusion.
- Wait a moment for it to settle in, then test the taste.
- Drink then refill. You can refill up to around 20 times, or until the mix becomes ‘lavado’ or ‘washed’ meaning the flavor’s spent and you’re pretty much drinking pure water.
Yerba mate teabags
If all this seems too complicated, then you can actually get it in teabag form (Amazon link). It’s far less traditional of course, and much like tea, I don’t imagine you’re going to get the full benefits or enjoyment from using this method. But if you just want to try it out then it might make for a low-level introduction.
If you don’t have any of the right equipment, or don’t want to yet purchase it until you’ve tried it, then you can just purchase the Yerba Mate mix and use either a french press or a tea infuser to process it in a very similar way to tea.
You can see a step by step how to when using your French Press/Cafetiere.
You can also prepare and consume mate in ice tea form. This is called ‘tereré‘
You can find out more information regarding cold preparation from Wikipedia here.
How To Drink Yerba Mate
So now you have your Yerba Mate prepared and ready. It may sound like a long process but really it’s not. Once you’ve done it a couple of times you’ll get quicker at it.
It’s not a quick drink, it’s one that you continually top up as you wish. You can get 20+ top-ups in your average cup of Yerba Mate so the flask is definitely a good idea so you can enjoy it for hours on end.
Traditionally, Yerba Mate was designed to be shared as part of a ceremonial experience. The words, Drank, Pass, and Fill form part of this experience. I have to say, aside from the modern-day fear of sharing germs, it’s a great way of bonding with a community or with friends.
The Taste of Yerba Mate
The number of Alkaloids and Xanthene in the leaves of mate are said to be directly related to the quality rating of the soil and is highly influenced by this. The flavor, therefore, varies greatly from region to region.
The amount of xanthene alkaloids in the leaves of maté is believed to be directly related to the quality of the soil. The mineral content in the soil can influence the flavor of the yerba mate giving it a milder taste or perhaps a bitter earthy taste. The flavor varies from region to region.
This can also affect the size and shape of the leaves. Leaves from native trees tend to be smaller and a darker green color. Whereas, leaves from the cultivated crops are generally larger with smoother edges on many cultivars.
As for taste, it’s a personal experience, many don’t like the bitterness of mate, but for the non-purists amongst us, you can add a little sweetener before adding your water. Or for a better, more natural experience try adding some herbal ingredients to it.
How Much Yerba Mate Should You Drink?
I’m no medical expert, but I do know everyone is different and what works for one does not always work for others. So I should stress, this is not medical advice.
So How Much Yerba Mate should you drink? Avoid constant consumption, 2 – 3 beverages at most, which should last a good portion of the day and through to the late afternoon.
Avoid drinking during the evening, especially if you’re sensitive to caffeine, so be aware of this whilst consuming it.
Benefits & Side Effects of Drinking Yerba Mate.
I’m not really writing this to address benefits or side effects, some of the current evidence is hotly contested anyway. But felt I should add a few resources where you can find out more and provide an overview.
Benefits of Drinking Yerba Mate
The good news is it’s packed with a huge range of vitamins. According to guayaki.com.
Yerba Mate contains 24 vitamins and minerals, 15 amino acids, and abundant polyphenols. Remarkably, the Pasteur Institute and the Paris Scientific Society concluded in 1964 that…
“it is difficult to find a plant in any area of the world equal to mate in nutritional value” and that yerba mate contains “practically all of the vitamins necessary to sustain life.”
According to WebMD early research shows there are a number of benefits, including the following.
Diabetes: Drinking 2 -3 times daily for up to 60 days can lower blood sugar in people with type 2 diabetes
Cholesterol: drinking Yerba mate 3 times per day for 40 days, lowers your cholesterol levels.
Osteoporosis: drinking yerba mate over a period of 4 years might reduce the rate of bone loss, particularly for women in postmenopausal stages.,
But the summary falls short on addressing many other areas, such as headaches, heart conditions, and low blood pressure.
Obesity: Evidence that it might decrease fat and help reduce weight.
On the subject of obesity, there is the following summary from the US National Library of Medicine who carried out a study…
“In summary, the data presented here showed that the use of yerba maté might be useful against obesity, improving the lipid parameters in humans and animal models. And In addition, yerba maté modulates the expression of genes that are changed in the obese state and restores them to more normal levels of expression. In doing so, it addresses several of the abnormal and disease-causing factors associated with obesity. Protective and ameliorative effects on insulin resistance were also observed. Thus, as a general conclusion, it seems that yerba maté beverages and supplements might be helpful in the battle against obesity.”
Side Effects of Drinking Yerba Mate
Similar advice from webmd also states that Yerba mate is ‘Possible safe’ for most people. It cites caffeine as being present and may cause issues for some, potential insomnia – presumably due to caffeine (doesn’t coffee do that too?), nervousness, restlessness, upset stomach, and other side effects like irregular heartbeats and headaches.
In larger amounts for long periods of time, they claim the side effects could be greater such as the risk of cancer in various forms, particularly where smoking or drinking alcohol are also involved. Although this is hotly debated to great length.
They also state that it shouldn’t be taken in large amounts, but point to caffeine as a reason for this. Plus it’s not advisable for children or pregnant women to consume it due to the risks outlined above.
They also go on to list a number of other potential side effects and interactions with other drugs. If you’re concerned about any of these as being potentially harmful I’d recommend conducting further research yourself to get independent advice.
There are so many other factors about Yerba Mate I could have included, but maybe I’ll write another article on those later.
Overall, having looked deeper into this drink, and tried it, I personally can’t understand why Yerba Mate hasn’t spread throughout most of the world the same as Tea has. I wouldn’t recommend drinking it all day every day, but then I wouldn’t recommend that about most drinks.
If taken in moderation it has so many health benefits that it’s a veritable health gift! We talk about the benefits of green tea, yellow tea, and white tea so much, and yet under our noses is potentially something even more beneficial.
Sure, they’ve tried to ‘westernize’ it by bottling it and stuffing it in tea bags, but still, it seems like most of the planet doesn’t really drink it – or even know of it. Yet in South American Countries they even have kettles with a temperature setting for ‘mate’.
I like it, I can only assume many others would too. Perhaps it’s a cultural thing, or maybe it’s just not as ‘cool’ as other drinks. If you can enlighten me then feel free to share your thoughts on why this is not already a globally mainstream beverage.
If you want to ‘get into’ Yerba Mate, don’t forget to buy the seeds, and then check out my Tea wares pages where I’ve tried to do the research for you. But, however you do it, I hope you enjoy it. And If you’re in town, come and share a Yerba Mate with me.
I hope you liked this post. I put a lot of effort into it, so any thoughts and comments are appreciated. And if you liked it then please feel free to share it. Also, if you are interested in tea, then you will love my Tea Sommelier course…
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