The Established Drinking Ritual For Yerba Mate

It's no secret that tea is enjoyed all over the world. There's a good chance you have a few different tea brands chilling in your cupboard as you read this. With tea, in many cases, comes a ritual. Maybe you light a candle for maximum coziness when you make your tea; Maybe you've even invested in a kettle with a pleasant whistle. In England, tea time is a cultural icon second only to the Queen herself. (Pass the baked beans, please.) Now, we want to talk about this South American tea that's been getting major attention in the U.S. market: yerba mate.

Yerba mate (aka "cimarrón" or "chimarrão") is a type of herbal tea made from the dried leaves of the yerba mate plant, per Backpacker: South America. Like black tea, says Katherine Zeratsky, R.D., L.D., via the Mayo Clinic, yerba mate contains caffeine and can be enjoyed hot or cold. Per Mate-tee, yerba mate is yellowish-green in color with a tart aroma, and folks have been enjoying it for over 5,000 years. The traditional South American drink is lauded as containing "the strength of coffee, the health benefits of tea, and the joy of chocolate" all in one bevvy, per Healthline. Plus, it says, yerba mate boosts metabolism and has even greater antioxidant properties than green tea

So, what else makes it so special?

Preparing the yerba is an art form

Per Food & Wine, the name "yerba mate" (pronounced YUR-buh MAH-tay) translates to "gourd herb." A "mate" is a type of dried gourd, and the beverage is traditionally consumed from a hollowed-out gourd through a special straw called a "bombilla." When the Guarani Indians first discovered yerba mate, says Mate-tee, they used a stick of natural sugar cane as a straw. Bombillas are specifically designed to filter out the tea leaves, and they should only be used for sipping (Matero claims this could ruin the tea). The final tool in the yerba mate drinking ritual is a thermos. Traditionally, groups of people share the drink together someplace outdoors, like a park, so hot water would need to be transported (via Food & Wine).

Once the beverage-drinking party reaches their destination, they sit down in a circle and one designated person (called the "cebador") fills the mate with leaves and warm water. After the leaves begin to steep a bit, the cebador inserts the bombilla into the mate (at an angle, to ensure it doesn't get stuck) and tops the solution off with a bit of hot water. But, before doing so, it's imperative that the cebador checks the water temperature to make sure it isn't boiling — if the water is too hot, it will scorch the leaves.

Yerba mate with the mates

According to Matear, the cebador takes the first sip, which might seem like a privilege but is actually a favor to the rest of the group, says Matero — the first sip is wicked bitter. Then, the mate is passed around the circle and everyone sips the tea through the bombilla, replenishing the hot water as they go (per Vamos Academy). The sipping order, however, varies by region. In Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay, each sipper drinks until the mate is empty, Matero explains, but in South Brazil each person takes just one sip before passing. Vamos Academy even calls yerba mate "the National Drink of Argentina."

The point of this ritual is all about fostering community; It is, first and foremost, a deliberate, intimate social activity. Matero calls the yerba mate ritual a "bonding experience." Per Healthline, sharing the yerba mate gourd is considered a sign of friendship and closeness. As Mate-tee puts it, "For chatting, relaxing and taking a deep breath, the hot cup of tea is like a little wellness holiday." When the Guarani first started drinking yerba, it says, the ritual began as a spiritual ceremony. In fact, according to Matear, the Guarani word "Caa" refers to both "yerba" and "plant/forest," indicative of the peoples' reverence for the practice. 

Step aside, "coffee date."