Not many drinks can offer the health benefits of tea, the strength of coffee, and the joy of chocolate like South America’s super brew, yerba mate.
Containing roughly as much caffeine as coffee, about 80 milligrams per cup, mate has gained global popularity—much so that brands like Perrier, Red Bull, and PepsiCo have launched mate drinks. According to Future Market Insights, global yerba mate sales will total $2.18 billion in 2023, and in the next decade, demand for the elixir will rise by 5.7 percent.
But long before the beverage reached German discos and American grocery stores, it was a traditional tea made from the steeped leaves and twigs of an indigenous plant, consumed across Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay for its health benefits. Many South Americans continue to brew yerba mate using similar methods developed by their Indigenous ancestors.
Along with supposed benefits of supporting weight loss, concentration, and better digestion, drinking yerba mate continues to symbolize culture and tradition in the Southern Cone. Here’s what to know about this energy-boosting alternative to tea and coffee.
History of yerba mate
Cultivated from the subtropical forest of South America, the leaves of yerba mate—an evergreen shrub-tree—are trimmed by hand, dried, ground, and then aged in a controlled environment for nine to 24 months. Once brewed it contains more antioxidants than any other tea-based drink.
The Indigenous Guaraní people of Paraguay, the first to consume yerba mate, considered the drink a gift from the gods. “Mate was used in communication with the divinities and as a medicine,” says Alejandra Lapietra, an Argentinian mate sommelier.
“The Guaraní used a gourd for prepared leaves and filtered it using their teeth or the direct antecedent of the bombilla (perforated straw), a tacuapi (bamboo cane) made of tacuara (bamboo sticks) basketry as a filter,” Lapietra says. “The Guaraní ritual of consuming mate as a social gathering continues to this day.”
Other tribal groups consumed mate including the Charrúa of Uruguay and Tupí of Brazil, who chewed the leaves to obtain the phytotherapeutic benefits. “Chewing the leaf was a way to extract the greatest amount of bioactive ingredients that gave energy and vitality,” Lapietra says.
The plants used to produce mate were valued by tribal groups throughout South America. “Mate was considered green gold,” says Valeria Trápaga, an Argentinian mate sommelier and author of The Mate in Body and Soul. “It was a bargaining chip with trade extending far beyond the region of production.”
When Jesuit missionaries arrived in Paraguay in the 17th century, they banned the consumption of mate because they thought it was an unhealthy habit. “In 1611, Marín Negrón, the governor of Asunción, punished those caught holding yerba of one hundred lashes of the whip,” says Jerónimo Lagier, author of The Adventures of the Yerba Mate.
Lagier says the ban ended around 1630 when the consumption and trade of mate were legalized. “The Jesuits discovered mate wasn’t a hallucinogen, but it quenched thirst and hunger as a source of energy due to its caffeine content. It was evident to them the economic advantage of domesticating the plant,” Lapietra says.
For those looking for a “healthier” caffeine alternative, mate packs a punch. “Caffeine in yerba has a gradual effect when it’s [slowly] drunk so caffeine isn’t ingested all at once,” says Eva De Angelis, an Argentinian dietitian and nutritionist, unlike drinking coffee or tea she adds.
Several studies have shown that caffeine can increase mental alertness and enhance physical performance. Added benefits for drinking the tea include having antimicrobial properties, supporting weight loss, and lowering blood sugar, and reducing cholesterol levels, risk of heart disease, and chronic inflammation.
However, she adds when consumed in excess, the tea may cause heartburn, a higher risk of gastric ulcer, trouble sleeping, restlessness, anxiety, and increased heartbeat. Additionally, yerba mate energy drinks, cannabis-infused beverages, alcoholic cocktails, and sodas aren’t likely to have the health benefits of drinking the tea in the traditional steeped fashion.
How to drink mate
Indigenous techniques are still utilized today to prepare mate, which also refers to the gourd in which the drink is made.
Per Trápaga, proper mate preparation is to fill ¾ of a gourd with yerba and add water boiled to 176ºF. “When the yerba has become moist, insert the bombilla in that sector and start adding water [at a 45 degree angle]. When half of the yerba has lost its foam, infuse the other half with more water,” she says. (Pro tip: Once you place the bombilla in the wet yerba, don’t move it. It could disturb the filtering process, and is considered impolite when sharing mate.)
While mate has yet to gain the global traction of Japanese matcha or Indian chai, it’s transformed from a sacred cultural tea to an international caffeinated sensation. Lagier doesn’t see any issues in the worldwide expansion of mate—despite many companies failing to acknowledge the Indigenous people who discovered the benefits of the plant.
“Our daily consumption is full of ancestral products that have become global—coffee, chocolate, and corn are basic things from other cultures,” he says. “I hope that mate becomes as global in any form of consumption. All innovation in mate consumption, even as a raw material, is welcome.”