The Popularity of Yerba Mate

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Although it’s strictly speaking not a real tea, yerba mate (chimarrão or cimarrón) is one of the most popular beverages in South America that you might have never heard of. In certain regions of the continent it is even more popular than coffee or traditional tea, and in Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay it’s even the national drink.

So what is yerba mate? Technically speaking, yerba mate is an herbal tea made from the plants of the yerba mate tree (Ilex paraguariensis), a species belonging to the holly family that produces small berries that blossom into flowers. The leaves are handpicked, dried (sometimes over an open fire) and cut before consumption. What makes the yerba mate plant special is that it’s one of very few plants (like the camellia sinensis and the coffee plant) that produces caffeine, and therefore provides a boost when infused into a drink. Mate actually was first cultivated by the Guarani and Tupi people, indigenous to Paraguay and Southern Brazil respectively, who believed that it provided both medicinal and supernatural benefits. Once the Spanish colonization of Paraguay took hold in the 17th century the consumption of yerba mate steadily started spreading into parts of Argentina, Uruguay and onwards.

Methods of preparing and serving mate differ quite a bit from one region to the next. However, the general way of preparing mate is by placing the dried and cut leaves in a calabash gourd (“mate”, hence the name), which is a small hollow cup, and pouring hot water (never boiling) into the cup. Mate is sipped through a special straw called the bombilla, of which the bottom end functions as a filter to separate the mate infusion from the leaves. Mate can also be prepared with cold water and ice, which is called ‘Terere’.

Additionally, drinking mate amongst friends and neighbors has a strong social significance. There are almost ritualistic tendencies involved with traditional mate: Only the host pours and serves the tea, and usually the host drinks the first cup because the first one tends to be quite bitter. The cup is then filled again and passed along to the next person. This repeats itself until the flavor of the mate is almost gone. Sharing the same cup and straw signifies a bond between the participants, however some have come to find this tradition somewhat unhygienic.

In recent years the popularity of yerba mate has spread the world over, in part due to it’s perceived medical benefits. These include providing an energy boost, helping with digestion, weight loss, and improved concentration. It is also said to be rich in nutrients and antioxidants, protects against infections, and helps lower blood sugar levels and risk of heart disease. As a result, the popularity of yerba mate is growing steadily in the more health conscious drinks all over the world.

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