Yerba Mate Tea
Learn all about yerba mate tea with the Wild Foods guide to tea!
Mate is a popular drink in South America, where it has been cultivated and consumed for hundreds of years.
While mate is referred to as a tea, it is made from the stems and leaves of the botanical plant name is Ilex paraguariensis, a member of the holly family of plants.
As traditional “tea” comes from the camellia sinensis plant, mate comes from an entirely different species of plant, and thus is considered a herbal tea.
Despite these semantics, mate is similar to tea in chemical composition, health benefit, and brewing methods.
Once farmed by Guarani and Tupi tribes in Brazil, mate is now a popular drink in Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia, U.S.A., and Argentina.
While elements of the traditional brewing methods are still in certain places around the world—mostly in South American countries—there are many variations of mate that have since evolved into various cultures.
Mate Cultivation and Processing
Good mate, like tea, starts at the cultivation level.
Traditionally grown across South America, Argentina is the largest producer in the world, exporting 280,000 tons annually.
The cultivation in northeastern Argentina represents over half the total production of the world and dwarfs Brazil and Paraguay, the second and third largest producers respectively.
The best mate is grown in the shade of rainforest canopy. Mass-produced mate is grown on large farms in direct sunlight, which makes the plants grow faster but produces bitter leaves and rapid soil depletion year after tear.
Once mate leaves and stems are cultivated—by experienced pruners in the case of quality mate—they undergo one of a few specific processing methods before being shipped to retailers.
Here is a flow chart describing the processing of mate tea compared to black and green camellia sinensis plant variations.
The greatest difference in processing between mate and green tea is the blanching and drying process. With mate, the leaves are flash heated over an open flame while green tea is generally steamed or pan-fried.
Mate is also dried slowly, often with smoke, which can alter the flavor of the mate. In contrast, green tea is quickly dried by high temperature (or sunlight) to avoid flavoring from other compounds.
Mate Preparation & Brewing
In much of South America, mate is prepared by steeping yerba mate leaves in hot water.
The loose leaf mate is placed in a gourd (many are made specifically for mate), filled with hot water and enjoyed through a filtered straw called a "bombilla."
Typical recommendations call for filling the mate gourd 50% - 75% full of leaves. Like other teas, the flavor is in the ratio.
Treating the yerba mate leaves with cool water before adding hot is essential because it protects the leaves and essential nutrients that provide the desirable health benefits.
If hot water is added directly to the dry leaves, it can scald the leaves and damage the flavor and nutritional compounds in the mate.
After adding cool water to protect the mate, pour the hot water into the gourd. Instead of filtering the tea out the water and drinking it in a cup, the bombilla filters the liquid on every sip and so the leaves remain in the cup. Pretty cool.
After steeping mate, experienced practitioners use different shaking methods to enhance the experience. They may isolate leaves to a single side of the gourd, shake the leaves in order to remove particulates, or just consume it as is.
While this process might sound daunting, the drinker can get as many cups of mate from a single batch of leaves as he or she desires. Finally, once the flavor and effects diminish, the mate is finished.
Of course, not all cultures drink mate this way.
Mate Brewing Around the World
In Argentina, the traditional method of brewing and drinking mate is so popular that it has been written into law as the "National Infusion."
Many variations of the traditional mate method exist across south America. For example, Brazil, which accounts for over 50% of global mate production, has many unique variations of consuming mate.
Many Brazilians prefer an iced mate method, which may be sweetened with sugar or honey. This style of mate has been popularized as a delicious and enticing beach drink in Rio de Janeiro, though it can be found in other areas of the country as well.
The most unique group in the world consuming traditional mate is located in Lebanon and Syria. The people who adhere to the Druze faith are some of the largest consumers of mate outside of south America.
Introduced by Lebanese migrants in the late 19th century, mate has become an incredibly popular drink in this part of the world.
In 2012 alone there were 1,500 tons shipped to Lebanon. During this time, mate has made appearances in many photographs and video footage during the conflict of the time. (1)
While there are various geographical and cultural changes, most people will agree that the best way to brew mate (for both taste and health benefits) is through the loose leaves and traditional steeping method.
But the only real test is to try it yourself and make up your own mind! (Hint: start here.)
Health Benefits of Mate
Mate is revered more for its benefits than its taste, especially if you are drinking unsweetened mate the traditional way.
At a basic level, mate contains chemicals called “xanthines”, which consist of commonly known caffeine, but also theobromine and theophylline. These chemicals are similar in their promotion of concentration and alertness.
These combined molecules make mate a perfect tool for improving mental function and cognitive abilities. Having all of these slightly varied molecules in a single food product is rare.
Best of all, mate has much less caffeine than coffee or guarana, which means it does not come with the high incidence of anxiety or jitters that can come with over-consumption of each.
Aside from this, mate is packed with polyphenols and flavonoids, which are powerful antioxidants that help prevent inflammation.
Studies suggest mate may have higher antioxidants and inhibit free radicals more strongly than green tea. (We say this: drink both!)
But the most special aspect of mate are chemicals called “caffeoyl derivatives,” which are found almost exclusively in mate and have unique antioxidant effects. There are other plants that contain these benefit compounds, but mate has the highest concentration of any documented thus far.
The average western diet is severely deprived of nutrients and minerals like potassium and magnesium, to name a few. Steeped mate provides additional potassium and magnesium, which support health in adults and help to replenish levels in active individuals that sweat a lot.
Just one more reason why mate is such an amazing brew!
Weight Loss And Yerba Mate
While there are a plethora of snake oil products promoting fat loss on the market, mate is not one of them. It is a scientifically proven alternative, both empirically and with verified data.
According to a 2002 study in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, mate showed a “...dramatic decrease in weight, after 45 days, in overweight patients…”(3)
Further studies have shown that mate helps with fat metabolism and generally improves weight management while preventing onset obesity.
Mate is a great drink to add to your (hopefully) already healthy lifestyle that will aid in mental cognition as well as general overall health.
Get Started with Mate
If you are interested in a nutrient rich brew, which will provide additional concentration and focus for your tasks, traditionally brewed mate could be the answer.
If you want a simpler mate experience, start with our loose leaf Wild Mate. All you need is a tea strainer or reusable tea bag and hot water.
Also consider cold brewing mate and keeping a jug in the fridge.