Yerba mate is an herb native to South America and is used to make the national drink of Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and Southern Brazil where it is consumed more than coffee. Similar to other caffeinated sources like tea, coffee, cacao, kola and guarana, the yerba mate herb is used to produce a caffeinated beverage. Yerba mate is neither a coffee nor a tea but is prepared in similar fashion.
How yerba mate grows
The yerba mate tree is a species of the holly family with leaves that are evergreen and produce small fruit berries that flower into greenish white flowers. They are sometimes roasted over a wood fire before they may be broken or cut to create the final herb for consumption.
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.
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 from 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.
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 like a traditional tea in a teacup, teapot, French press or coffee maker.
Tasting yerba mate
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.
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.