by Marta Szumiata
on April 17, 2020

A gift from the gods

Guarani natives in Paraguay call the yerba mate source plant “Tree par excellence”, a gift from the gods. They use yerba mate not only as a drink, but also in religious rituals and, in the past, as currency. ‘Yerba’ means herb while ‘mate’ corresponds to the carven gourd used to make and enjoy the drink. The tradition of drinking yerba mate hasn’t changed for hundreds—if not thousands—of years, though it’s not just a beverage, but a cultural and social affair too. While primarily enjoyed in its South American origin, yerba mate is gaining popularity in North America and Europe.

From ground to cup

Yerba mate can only be harvested by hand when the plants reach maturity around four years of age. Fresh leaves are put directly into fire for 20-30 seconds to stop the fermentation and oxidation due to present enzymes. This step is called ‘sapecado’, helping maintain the green colour and producing the characteristic aroma and taste (various types of wood enhance the flavors in different ways). The leaves are then heated at 100ºC for up to 20 hours to dry them sufficiently (‘secado’). After being crushed into smaller particles, toasted yerba (‘canchado’) is stored in bags and aged (‘beneficio’). At this point, different parts of the plant are blended. There are three possible ratios: 7/3, 3/2 or 1/1 leaves/stems. The more leaves, the stronger the taste of the brewed infusion A final round of quality control assures manufacturers only sell the highest quality leaves.

yerba mate - gourd cup & bombilla)

The authentic (and only right) way of preparation Authentic yerba mate brewing requires specific equipment: a traditional gourd cup and a bombilla (metal straw which is perforated at one end to act as a filter when drinking mate). A thermos of warm water completes the list of required materials. Firstly, put yerba mate (about 8-10 tablespoons per cup) in the gourd, cover it with your hand and turn it upside-down to remove tiny grains that might clog the bombilla. Rotate the mug on one side and shake it to place the leaves lopsided. Then, you will have a place to slide in your bombilla. Pour luke-warm water (60ºC) half-way up and wait 1-2 minutes till the leaves absorb the liquid.

cup yerba mate

This initial infusion helps to bring out nutrients and prevents you from scalding your tongue. Finally, add more water (70-80ºC) to 2/3 – 3/4 volume. The temperature is crucial, as too high will burn the leaves and result in bitter and over-strong brew. Wait for the water to settle, take a careful sip, and enjoy the drink. You can refill it up to twenty times until the mate becomes ‘washed out’ (‘lavado’).

Alternative ways of making

Though not traditional, yerba mate bags (‘mate cocido’) simplify the brewing process. It is possible to brew it normally like any other tea or herbs. You can also use a French press or automatic coffee maker. Just put yerba in place of coffee grounds. In Paraguay, people use cold water with ice (‘terere’) and sometimes mix the blend with other herbs. They even replace the gourd with a cured cow horn occasionally. Another cup you may find being used is a hollow grapefruit. You can also replace water with warm milk for a smoother, sweeter flavor.

Social impact

Drinking mate is often a communal experience—even strangers can join in. Often, only one bombilla is used by everyone in the circle. The first sip is always taken by the person who prepares the mate. He is called the server (‘el cebador‘). The server is obliged to refill the infusion with warm water every time a person has drunk some mate (hence the necessity of a full thermos). After refilling the gourd, he passes the cup to the next person in the group. If you are done with drinking, say ‘’gracias’ to the server, as you probably know means ‘thank you’. Never change the place of the bombilla and don’t stir the herbs as it can clog the pipe and it’s considered very impolite. Don’t dare to sweeten the drink, even if it tastes bitter.

The aroma profile

aroma profile yerba mate

Yerba mate owes its typical profile profile to the processing method. Some of the molecules are also found in tea. During harvesting, enzymes are activated and give off a green, fatty, waxy-like molecules with faint mushroom and cucumber notes. The application of direct fire to stop the enzymatic transformation brings out woody /smoky, phenolic - floral (geraniol) - citrusy (linalool) and spicy / clove-like (eugenol) and camphoraceous (1,8-cineole) notes. 2-methoxy-4-vinylphenol responds to woodiness not only in yerba mate but also in vanilla, smoked salmon, cooked wild rice, sprouted chickpea, peated whiskey, coffee Arabica, and many different beers. 4-methylphenol gives an extra phenolic smell.

The drying process enables Maillard reactions and caramelization and is responsible for roasted popcorn-like, caramellic, and buttery aromas. Strecker degradation is responsible for potato and sulfurous notes. β-damascenone gives rose hues and occurs in versatile beverages as coffee Arabica, Bourbon whiskey, rum, cognac, gin and different beers. It is also present in chocolate, cooked sweet potato, apple, mango, and various kinds of honey. An animal substance can also be detected, namely 3-methylindole delivers flowery forest / woody-like smell, and exists in cooked grey fish, stewed gravy beef and pork, goat milk, chorizo, dark chocolate, cooked millet, and shellfish like lobster, fried gamba, or grilled shrimp. There are also some fruity creamy coconut nuances supported by cheesy notes.

Beneficial for your health

Yerba mate offers an energy boost, thanks to xanthine, α-theobromine, and a derivative of xanthine, caffeine (sometimes called mateine) with about 80 mg per cup. It is full of nutrients, including vitamins B and C and minerals (zinc, potassium and manganese). Thanks to the presence of antioxidants, it reduces inflammation. It might be helpful in detoxification as well. Yerba mate may protect your heart, DNA and help in losing your weight.

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by Marta Szumiata
A confectioner, food technologist and culinary reenactor. Loving food, Marta is still exploring culinary world looking for new inspirations and bewildering dishes. She likes to try her created recipes on her family and friends, especially fermented ones

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