The Guarani culture drank mate for centuries before the arrival of the Portuguese and Spanish to their homeland in present day Paraguay, southern Brazil, northeast Argentina and Uruguay. The leaves of the yerba mate tree contain caffeine and it’s recognized by the FDA to be on par with coffee and tea. To the Guarani, mate was a medicinal plant with a variety of benefits. For several decades in the 17th century, under strict colonial rule, mate was outlawed. The ban simply increased the mystic of its beneficial effects from stimulating love to weight loss.
In Argentina and Uruguay drinking mate is as common as coffee and tea. In vehicles and on the street, a thermos of hot water, jar of mate, the gourd or cup and the bombilla might be carried in a special leather mate case. Mate drinkers may start early in the morning and continue throughout the day until 8:00 p.m. That’s the traditional time to stop consuming mate and move onto wine.
The method of preparing the mate infusion varies considerably from region to region, and it is hotly debated as to which method yields the finest outcome. Unlike tea, the nature of mate leaves requires that the drinker master the preparation in order not to have a harsh, weak or bitterly strong brew. However, nearly all methods have some common elements.
The beverage is traditionally prepared in a gourd mate cup. The cup is filled nearly to the top with dried mate leaves. The preparer typically grasps the top of the cup sealing the opening with the palm. Then the cup is turned upside-down and briefly shaken. This causes the fine powdery particles of the mate to settle toward the preparer’s palm at the top of the cup.
All of this careful settling of the yerba mate ensures that each sip contains as little particulate matter as possible. The finest particles will then be as distant as possible from the oval shaped filter at the end of the bombilla straw. With each draw, the smaller particles will inevitably move toward the straw, but the larger particles and stems, plus the small holes at the end of the bombilla filter much of this out.
The bombilla is inserted into the dry mate. Cool water is poured into the gourd until it nearly reaches the top. and after two to three minutes the dry mate has absorbed the water. Treating the yerba mate with cool water before the addition of hot water is essential as it protects the herb from being scalded.
Hot water of 160 -170º F is added until it reaches the top of the gourd. Once the hot water has been added, the mate is ready for drinking. The cup is refilled numerous times before becoming washed out (lavado) and losing its flavor. Typically one quart of hot water can be added over time before the mate losses flavor.
If a group is present the same gourd (cuia) and straw (bombilla) are used by everyone drinking. One person assumes the task of server (cebador). Typically, the cebador fills the gourd and drinks the mate completely to ensure that it is free of particulate matter and of good quality. Passing the first brew of mate to another drinker is considered bad manners because it has not been tested. The cebador subsequently refills the gourd and passes it to the next drinker who likewise drinks it all. When there is no more tea, the straw makes a loud sucking noise, that is not considered rude. The cup is handed back to the server and drinking proceeds around the circle until the mate becomes lavado (“washed out” or “flat”). The cebador refills the cuia with fresh mate and continues. When one has had their fill of mate, it’s polite to thank the cebador while passing the cup back. It is considered rude to complain about the temperature of the water or to take too long to finish drinking.
Some drinkers like to add sugar or honey creating mate dulce (sweet mate), instead of sugarless mate amargo (bitter mate). The sugar is sprinkled directly on top of the mate before the water is added but do not stir. The Welsh region of northern Patagonia particularly enjoys mate dulce. It’s considered bad for the mate cup, especially for natural squash or wood cups, to be used for both mate dulce and amargo, so it is normal for households with drinkers of both kinds to have dedicated cups.
Traditionally the mate cup is a natural gourd but for the last four hundred years the art of crafting wood, silver, gold, ceramic, glass and even plastic cups has reached fine art. Major museums in Argentina all have exhibits of regional and fine art mate cups and bombillas. The bombilla could be as simple as a feathered bamboo straw or as elegant as a sterling silver and gold art work. Silver is still the metal of choice for a high end bombilla, but stainless steel is increasingly common.
Yerbe mate, along with cups and bombillas, is available in many countries today where tea and coffee are sold. Whether it stimulate one’s love life or aids in weight loss may be open to scientific debate, although not by its devotees. Yet following the age old ritual is a pleasant group experience adding a relaxing element to conversation.