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Maté for Friends, Lovers, and Strangers

Learning Spanish has already opened my eyes, ears and taste buds to many new experiences. One experience I have particularly enjoyed has been learning about the culture and tradition of Maté. This article explores what Maté is and how it has  become a ubiquitous part of Argentinian culture and beyond.

What is Maté

Maté is a tea made from the yerba leaves (Ilex paraguariensis). The word derives from the Quechua “mati” meaning gourd (Lagenaria vulgaris). The leaves are roasted and then added to a gourd (also called mate or a guampa) and steeped with hot water. You drink the tea with a metal straw called a bombilla. It is common for maté lovers to carry a thermos with them to keep refreshing the drink throughout the day.

The Legend of the Moon Goddess

The legend of yerba Maté starts with the Guaraní people. In El regalo de la diosa luna (The Gift of the Moon Goddess) Un viejo guaraní saved the moon goddess and her friend the cloud goddess from a tiger while they were visiting from heaven. They rewarded the Indian with a gift of a valuable plant was to be called Yerba Maté….it will calm the thirst of everyone who drinks it.

How Do You Prepare Maté?

There are a lot of strong and passionate opinions on how to prepare Maté. I will defer to the experts but here at the basics that most people seem to agree on…

  1. Heat the water..don’t let it get to a boil, major rookie mistake…you want it 70º and 80ºC (158º – 176ºF)
  2. Pour the yerba (the leaves) into the gourd or about ¾ full. Cover the top with your hand and shake to separate the dust
  3. Tilt the gourd so the yerba is at an angle, sometimes called the mountain
  4. Pour a little bit of water at the bottom of the mountain
  5. Place the bombillo at the bottom of the mountain
  6. Pour the water into the gourd where the bombilla meets the yerba
  7. Not it’s time to enjoy and share with your friends

Here are a few passionate maté drinkers explaining their process.

Did you knowThe National Institute of Yerba Maté estimates that most Argentines consume nearly 14 pounds of maté per year.

The National Institute of Yerba Maté

The Maté Culture

In addition to maté being a tasty beverage, it also has a rich social tradition that is embedded in the culture. It is a common practice to offer guests a maté when they visit your home. It is also common to see people drinking maté outside the home at work, in parks and cafes. People tend to drink Maté all day long so will often see people out and about with their thermoses to keep the Maté flowing all day. 

There is also the “Maté circle” where you pass the gourd around with a group of friends. Everyone shares the same gourd and straw and one person, the server or cebador, is in charge of refreshing the beverage and keeping everyone in line. There are some unwritten rules when participating in the maté circle. Since I have not experienced this first hand yet, I’ll refer to a few guides that explain the dos and don’ts to avoid humiliation.

Health Benefits of Yerba Maté

Maté is a caffeinated beverage like coffee but the experience is quite different. While there is still a stimulant effect it seems more gradual and a smooth-sloped boost rather than the spike and crash feeling that seems more common with coffee. While the health benefits are different for person the some or the reported benefits include:

  • Greater energy
  • Mental focus
  • Reduced fatigue
  • Weight loss
  • Antioxidant activity
  • Enhanced sports performance

Summary

I started drinking maté about 4 months ago. I really enjoyed it right from the beginning. It does have a distinctive earthy taste that is slightly bitter. I have experimented a bit with sweeteners, honey, sugar, and agave. But I prefer it without any sweetener (I also like my coffee black and strong) and don’t mind the bitterness. I am looking forward to experimenting with another version called tereré which is a cold version often consumed in the hot summer months with lots of ice and fruit juices. I look forward to someday taking part in the maté circle and sharing this rich tradition with the locals.

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