Yerba mate is a South American shrub which is cultivated so that its tender shoots and leaves can be harvested. The dried shoots and leaves are used to create a beverage called mate, which is one of the most popular beverages in South America. Mate also appears in a toasted form for boiling water brewing, in which case it is called mate tea. The consumption of mate has spread to other parts of the world as well, with consumers drinking it instead of coffee as a refreshing and energizing beverage.
The name “yerba mate” is a compound of Spanish and Quechua. In Spanish, hierba means herb, while in Quechua, mate means “cup.” Therefore, the plant is literally the “cup herb,” undoubtedly a reference to its popularity as the base for a beverage. In regions with a large Portuguese population, it may be called erva mate or erva-mate.
Native Americans have been working with yerba mate for centuries. Cultivation and usage of the Ilex paraguariensis plant also spread to European settlers in South America, and in several countries, mate is like a national beverage. It appears in iced form at supermarkets, and many way stations offer hot water so that travelers can brew their yerba mate leaves. Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay in particular have big mate cultures. Some Middle Eastern countries such as Syria also drink a lot of mate, due to a South American influence. Like coffee, yerba mate contains a great deal of caffeine, but it does not have the bitterness associated with coffee.
Traditionally, yerba mate is packed into a gourd, also known as a mate. To prepare mate, hot water is poured over the leaves and stems, and the consumer inserts a bombilla, or tea straw. The tea straw is equipped with a strainer which filters out the plant material while the consumer drinks. When the water runs out, more is poured over the leaves, and they may be reused repeatedly throughout the day. In a sign of fellowship in some countries, people may drink together out of the same mate. It is also not uncommon to see people carrying thermoses of hot water and packed mate gourds throughout their day.
When mate leaves are toasted, they acquire a distinct and slightly spicy flavor. Mate may also be blended with teas, particularly green tea, or ingredients like dried fruit. These flavored mate blends are very popular outside of Latin America. In Latin America, individual consumers may add herbs to their yerba mate to create a specific herbal infusion recommended for health.