What is Mate?
Growing wild in the jungles of eastern Paraguay, the south of Brazil, and the northeast of Argentina, the drink yerba mate or Ilex Paraguariensis is an Aquifolial plant. The species is related to holly, and its trees can grow up to sixteen meters in height. Their leaves are used to make the drink yerba mate. The drink is ubiquitous in Latin America, but it is also popular in other countries around the globe.
Usually mate is drank by a group of people together. Dried leaves from the plant are used to partially fill a specially-made cup (also called a mate), and a straw (called a bombilla) goes into the leaves. Somebody adds hot water to the leaves (usually from a thermos) and sips it through the bombilla to judge if it is ready to drink, or if it has a bad flavor or too much heat. The flavor is earthy, strong, and usually rather bitter, and sometimes milk or sugar is added. After one person drinks the mate-infused hot water, more water is added to the mixture and it is passed on to somebody else, who drinks until satisfied and then passes the mate back to the first person for refilling so the next friend can drink it. This continues until the flavor is gone, a process which may take hours if the drinkers are simply passing the time and enjoying each other’s’ company. When the flavor is gone, Spanish speakers say the mate is lavado, literally meaning “washed”. The drink affects the body much the same way as coffee.
The Beginning of Mate
The original drinkers of yerba mate were native tribes in current-day Uruguay, Paraguay and the province of Argentina’s Mesopotamia province. In that region, peoples like the Guaraní drank it from gourds, with bombillas made from cane grasses. The Guaraní word for this gourd was mati, and the drink was called ka’a. In this context yerba mate was traded with neighboring people groups, and eventually it was traded with Jesuits who were coming to the area from Spain in the seventeenth century. These Jesuit missionaries drank it like tea, as opposed to the Guaraní gourd method. They brought it from its jungle and wetland origins into their settlements further south, down to the area of Rio de la Plata, which is the modern location of Argentina’s capital, Buenos Aires. The Jesuits increased production of yerba mate to a new level, growing it in vast orchards and regularly consuming it until the Pope ordered the Jesuits to leave the area in 1767.
Mate during the 1900s
During the 1900s yerba mate production became an important source of commerce for Argentina, and the government gave financial incentives to European settlers to encourage the growth and cultivation of the plant. Unfortunately, a significant number of Argentines preferred having it imported from Paraguay and Brazil, and this international trade of the product impacted Argentine growers so severely that the government made laws to control its sale and growth in the year 1936. Argentine farmers were given production quotas, but import of mate remained a problem for growers until the law’s repeal in the year 1989. After the repeal, there was a surplus in the production of mate, causing the price and value of mate to decrease significantly.
Yerba mate only grows in the South American wetland regions where it originated, having evolved for the heat and moisture. Attempts have been made to grow the plant in other parts of the world, but as these attempts have failed, mate’s countries of origin hold a monopoly on the plant. It is now a major export and a source of economic strength for those South American countries. The drink is consumed across the globe, though different countries consume it in different ways. Many people from around the globe have migrated and repatriated through Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil, and in this way mate has been brought back to those people’s countries. In fact, it is well known for its popularity in Syria and Lebanon, where drinkers use their own bombillas there rather than sharing one bombilla in a group. Mate is also consumed in the United States, though most often in bags like ordinary tea rather than drank from a mate through a bombilla.
The Medical Benefits of Mate
Yerba mate has a reputation as a good source of iron, potassium, vitamin B1 and B2, magnesium, sodium, and several healthy amino acids. In addition, it has been shown to increase the healthy kind of cholesterol and boost heart health. In addition, it is rich in polyphenols are thought to strengthen the immune system and defenses of the body. These chemical properties are just a positive addition to the relaxation that comes with drinking in a community with good friends. For the mate drinker, consuming it in a communal setting can only benefit the health and wellness.