There are only a handful of plants in the world that produce caffeine, and yerba mate is one of them. Along with tea, coffee, cacao, kola (or cola) and guarana, the yerba mate herb is used to produce a caffeinated beverage. While prepared as an infusion to create a tea-like beverage, yerba mate contains no actual tea leaves.
Yerba mate is an herb native to South America and is used to make the national drink of Argentina, Paraguay, Uraguay and Southern Brazil. In fact, yerba mate is consumed 6 to 1 over coffee in these countries.
So how did yerba mate become so popular in South America and how did it end up in our tea cups?
Yerba mate origins
The origins of yerba mate are filled with folklore. Discovered by the indigenous peoples of the forests of Paraguay (the Guarani) and Southern Brazil (the Tupi), it was known as an herb “from the gods” used mostly for physical stamina. The herb was a dietary staple for agriculture-dependent and nomadic and warrior-based lifestyles, depending on the tribe. It was also used for medicinal purposes. Natives believed yerba mate was a gift given to them to sustain life, increase vitality and heal the sick. As a spiritual herb, yerba mate was used for worship and often used for religious and other important tribal ceremonies.
The stimulant properties of the beverage became popular with Argentinian gauchos (or cowboys), who sipped yerba mate for energy during cattle drives or long harvest days. It was also consumed in place of scarce food during periods of drought or famine. This “cowboy coffee” was sipped in the morning and at night around the campfire. A shared gourd of yerba mate was passed around and sipped in fellowship as meals were prepared.
As the Spanish began to colonize the countries across South America, they saw firsthand the health and energy benefits this indigenous beverage had on the people of the land. They took up the habit and quickly spread and popularized the herb as they conquered the continent. Unlike coffee and cocoa, the other South American crops the Europeans cultivated for cash-rich export, yerba mate was not a domesticated species and had to be harvested from wild stands of shade trees. It took centuries for the Europeans to figure out how to turn the plant into a reliable crop. The “secret”, it turned out, was that yerba mate seeds were only germinated when they passed through the digestive tracts of certain native birds.
How yerba mate grows
The yerba mate tree is a species of the holly family with leaves that are evergreen (showing leaves during all four seasons) and produce small fruit berries that flower into greenish white flowers. The leaves and tender stems are often hand picked then dried in a controlled environment. They are sometimes roasted over a wood fire before they may be broken or cut to create the final herb for consumption. Some yerba mate is even aged in cedar or other wood for up to a year or more for added flavor.
The highest quality yerba mate is shade-grown under the rich rainforest canopy and away from direct sunlight. This shelter allows the leaves to retain more of their nutrients and flavor than plants that are exposed to the sun. Wild yerba mate trees are harvested only every two years, because their leaves take longer to fully develop. Whereas cultivated trees are harvested at the end of each winter, because they grow faster due to careful pruning, sun exposure and water control.
Yerba mate is grown and processed all over South America. Today, Brazil is the largest producer of the herb, followed by Argentina and Paraguay.
How yerba mate is prepared
Yerba mate is prepared most traditionally in a gourd, or “mate”. While the original gourds were small bowls or cups made from hollow, dried-out squash, modern day gourds may be made out of metal, ceramic or wood. The yerba, or “herb”, is placed in the gourd and shaken, crushed or ground. Cold water is then poured into the gourd a little at a time so it has time to absorb into the herbs and prepare them for the infusion. Hot water (or sometimes cold, but never boiling) is then poured over the herbs to fill the gourd. The herbs infuse into the water to produce a tea-like beverage.
The infused yerba mate herbs are not strained out from the water as with tea or coffee. Instead, the beverage is sipped through a “bombilla”, a metal straw made of silver, copper or stainless steel with small holes at the bottom. The bombilla acts as both a straw and a sieve, so the liquid can be sipped while the herb bits are left in the gourd.
Traditionally, yerba mate is prepared in one gourd that is shared; this is part of the social and cultural experience of drinking yerba mate. In a mate ceremony, the “cebador”, or mate preparer, prepares a gourd of mate, sips it down to make sure the mate is smooth, and then prepares another mate in the same gourd to pass from guest to guest. Each guest sips down a gourd of mate and returns it to the cebador to prepare another for the next guest in the circle. This is a traditional ritual of friendship and hospitality.
While gourd preparation is still the preferred way to drink yerba mate in South America, modern day methods work as well. Many companies marketing yerba mate as an herbal tea sell it in pre-packaged tea bags and as a loose leaf herb. Yerba mate can be steeped similar to a traditional tea in a tea cup, teapot, French press or coffee maker.
At Essenzefruits®, we cool dry our Yerba mate and add to our famous Impossible Mochaccino to substitute the coffee and add antioxidants and extra energy to our delicious instant drink.
Tasting yerba mate
Yerba mate is often described as earthy, vegetal, herbaceous and bittersweet. Imagine a fresh rainforest floor and you can likely picture the flavor of yerba mate.
But the flavor of yerba mate can vary subtly based on growing regions, cultivation practices and brewing techniques. Many styles of yerba mate contain tender stems and branches from the tree, which can impart a woodsy flavor to the tea. If the plant is harvested late, it can be higher in tannins than a young plant, which can yield a more astringent and bitter herb. Some producers roast the leaves and twigs for a toasted flavor. Others age the harvested herb in wood containers to impart even more layers of forest-like flavor.
Essenzefruits organic Yerba mate hails from Brazil. The small green leaves give way to scents of fresh grass, wood and bark. And it brews into a soft, golden yellow liquor with a medium-bodied, toasted and earthy flavor.
Caffeine content in yerba mate
Yerba mate is often described as a beverage with the energy kick of coffee, the smooth flavor of traditional tea, the healing components of herbal tea and the feel-good factor of chocolate. In fact, the yerba mate plant contains caffeine, theophylline and theobromine, the stimulants also found in coffee, tea and chocolate.
As with any beverage made from a caffeinated plant, the caffeine content can vary depending on how the variety of plant, how it was processed and how the herb was brewed. Some yerba mate plants can even vary in strength of the flavor, caffeine levels and other nutrients depending on whether it’s a male or female plant; female plants tend to be milder in flavor and lower in caffeine.
Generally, the caffeine content of a yerba mate beverage is typically more than black tea but less than coffee. If you’re watching your caffeine intake, always ask your tea vendor for the caffeine amounts specific to the yerba mate you purchased.