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12 travel facts about yerba mate, the drink of choice in Argentina

in Ark Weekender by

While US markets advertise yerba mate as an herbal tea to remain awake and slim down, in Argentina, the birthplace of the herbaceous plant, is far from the get-skinny-quick remedy.

Yerba mate is the most consumed beverage in the country, and part of a long tradition of communal drinking dating back to pre-Columbian, indigenous culture.

Pronounced, sher bah mah-tay in Buenos Aires, yerba mate is so loved that instead of cherishing your favorite coffee mug, you protect your treasured drinking gourd for the healthy libation. 

Explained to me by Marcela, an avid mate drinker, expert and co-owner of Mate & Company, based in the Palermo district of Buenos Aires. “You know in the offices, you have yerba mate cups lined up instead of coffee mugs,” she told a group of us at her quaint shop during a mate tasting on a late, Argentine fall.

Mate & Company in Buenos Aires provides a great stash of yerba mate with different mixes of flowers, fruits and other herbal selections.

In fact, you’ll never see yerba mate sold by the cup like coffee. Though me, quite the Black-gringo, looked for it at java dives for days, until a group of barbers shared their stash when I visited a shop on a whim. In Argentina, serving a cup of mate from one random person to another is considered sacrilege. The antiquated tea is a communal drinking ritual passed down by the Paraná peoples who lived in the region before Spanish conquistadors came and did what they did best there, colonize and ratcheted up genocide. 

Drinking yerba mate is a ceremony emphasizing community and sharing. So, in Argentina, it is highly likely that you must purchase your mate, and brew it at home. Interestingly, you can buy hot water at gas stations and local small shops. Nope, I did not stutter. Hot water, steamed to just the right temperature is hawked, but not the plant. That’s just how serious the culture and it’s popularity.

At my yerba mate tasting, I walked away with 10 important facts that increased my limited understanding tremendously.

1. Yerba mate is a holly genus species, or Ilex paraguariensis. Part of the aquifoliaceae family, it grows in northern Argentina, southern Brazil, southern Paraguay, and western Uruguay. Every region that drinks yerba mate has its specialty. In Buenos Aires, its hot, while in the northern part of the country by the equator where temperatures boil, people prefer it like iced tea. While in Brazil, some mix in milk.

Yerba mate tasting in Buenos Aires.

2. The earliest known humans to consume it are from the Paraná or Misiones forest. After Spanish explorers arrived in approximately 1527 and learned of its medicinal and recreational purposes from the area’s aboriginal folk, by 1609, Jesuit priests began to domesticate it rather than the traditional way of foraging. By the 1800s, yerba mate’s mass production and harvesting thrived as a major part of the economy. As well, the first reports of workers, hence slaves and indentured servants were reported as being abused in the agriculture of the plant.

3. Traditionally, yerba mate is consumed communally. One straw and one gourd. Part of drinking yerba mate is refilling the gourd and maintaining the temperature, which is designated to one person. A group of friends take turns sipping from the gourd, while one of the participants prepares and circulates the libation. Often, in a friendly circle, the preparer gets badgered jokingly on their ability to pour, pour and pass.

4. Unlike the common practice of high temperature water for tea or coffee then pouring over the leaves or beans, in yerba mate, the water and steeping process is much different. Water should be between 160 and 180 degrees Farhenheit, and not boiling temperatures which is 212 degrees.

5. In preparing the tea, the leaves are poured in first then you bore a hole into the mound on the side of the gourd. Next, you pour the water into the hole then place in the straw.

6. Yerba mate is sipped through a straw. Because the leaves are left in the cup, which is refilled several times, the straw is designed to strain the leaves.

7. Everyone has their own yerba mate cup, even in families. Parents begin to give the strong elixir to children at around 2-years-old then gift their children a special, miniature drinking gourd at about 5-years-old.

8. Do not, I mean do not drink from anyone else’s cup.

This is a typical scene at an outdoor market. Vendors selling all types of yerba mate drinking gourds and cups. The traditional drinking cup is a callabash, made from a squash that is scraped clean then dried. A huge tip is never use another person’s mate cup.

9. If you’re offered to drink, refusing is like a slap in the face. Take the drink, and worry about germs later. Or, have a flask of strong brown liquor in your pocket to sterilize.

10. Mate does have many health benefits such as: boosting energy, promoting the ability to focus when you need to tackle big projects; increases clarity for important decision-making; aids in digestion; suppresses the appetite to lose weight; lowers blood levels for those concerned with diabetes; and possesses a long list of nutrients and antioxidants like Vitamin C to strengthen the immune system.

11. Beware. There is such a thing as a poor grade of mate. It takes roughly two years to prepare yerba mate from plant to dried leaves and stems. Marcela told us at the tasting that due to its increased popularity, some growers cannot supply mate enough, so they do unscrupulous and unsanitary methods like sweep the floors in the production houses and package them. If your mate is cheap, it is too good to be true. Find a reputable company, and ask an expert.

12. Indeed, you’ve got to work your way towards the bitter, plant flavor. However, over the years, yerba mate companies began exploring with its taste by mixing flowers, fruits and spices. Even, you can get yerba mate with bits of chocolate, another Argentine delicacy. So drink up and enjoy.

| Read: More than steak and Tango: Buenos Aires in the winter for first time travelers |

Arkitect Duane Reed focuses on the market and currency, but lately is getting his hands into more travel and news.

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