Around the world, many people drink coffee for its caffeine content – a natural stimulant which can improve a number of cognitive functions. As well as coffee, caffeine is also found in other products, such as tea, cocoa, guarana, and yerba maté.
Consumed for centuries in some South American countries, yerba maté (Ilex paraguariensis) is a plant species which belongs to the holly genus. Once dried, its stems and leaves can be steeped in hot water to produce an earthy and slightly bitter tea-like beverage.
Today, yerba maté beverages can be found all over the world, including ready-to-drink (RTD) options which are becoming increasingly popular in the US and Europe. In fact, according to BevNet, the RTD yerba maté market was valued at US $93.2 million in 2016, and it’s likely this number has grown in the years since.
To learn more about yerba maté, how it is traditionally prepared and consumed, and its burgeoning RTD market, I spoke with three industry experts. Read on for more of their insight.
You may also like our article on whether green tea contains more caffeine than coffee.
A brief history of yerba maté
It’s believed that the Ilex paraguariensis plant was first discovered by indigenous Guaraní people who lived in what is now known as Paraguay. For centuries, it was consumed by indigenous tribes for cultural and spiritual reasons, as well as its purported medicinal effects.
The Guaraní people reportedly first chewed the leaves and stems of the plant, but then began steeping them in water to create a tea-like beverage. This would be brewed in clay pots or hollowed and dried gourds, and drunk using hollowed-out sticks as straws.
However, when European colonists arrived in Paraguay in the mid-1600s, the consumption of yerba maté was initially forbidden – largely because European colonial powers deemed the plant to be addictive.
In the years that followed, however, European colonists reversed the ban on consumption and forced enslaved native people to increase production. The first commercial trade route for yerba maté was established in 1645, allowing dried leaves and stems to be exported to European countries.
With consumption of yerba maté increasing – both domestically and abroad – it became one of the colony’s biggest cash crops. However, this growth came at the expense of exploiting indigenous people. Production then began to steadily increase in neighbouring countries, such as Argentina and Brazil.
In the late 1700s, European colonists were expelled from Paraguay, which meant many yerba maté plantations were abandoned, and in turn, production started to decline.
Following a devastating war in Paraguay from 1864 to 1870, Argentina and Brazil annexed some of the country’s land, which included major yerba maté-growing regions. This meant Paraguay’s production came to an end, while both Argentina and Brazil began to grow and export more.
Understanding its cultural significance
Yerba maté has deep rooted histories in several different cultures in South America.
According to Statista, Argentina produced more than 837,200 tonnes in 2019, while the National Institute of Yerba Maté claims 100 litres of the beverage are consumed every year per capita. Brazil, meanwhile, is the world’s biggest producer of maté based on statistics from the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.
Callum Berry is the owner of Anam Mate, a yerba maté importer in the UK.
“Drinking yerba maté is culturally significant [in some South American countries],” he says. “People grew up drinking it and still drink it today – it’s part of their tradition and heritage.”
For centuries, the drink has been prepared and consumed communally. Following on from the colonisation of native Paraguayan people, gauchos (who are considered to be South American cowboys) preserved the tradition of sharing yerba maté among friends and family.
Andrés Puras Fernández is from Chile and runs a yerba maté Youtube channel. He tells me the beverage is still consumed via traditional means across South America today.
“In supermarkets and homes alike in Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay, you will see yerba maté products,” he says. “You’ll find people drinking it in many places.”
However, both Andrés and Callum mention that the drink isn’t as popular elsewhere in the world, but say that demand seems to have increased in recent years. In fact, it is also commonly consumed in Lebanon, Syria, and other parts of the Middle East (mainly by Druze and Alawite people), but this is largely linked to historic migration from South America.
Andrés specifically mentions that his YouTube channel saw a significant increase in traffic during the pandemic, and that yerba maté’s popularity among professional UK football players could be attributed to overall rising demand.
“It’s not going to appeal to everyone because some people may want a more quick and convenient beverage,” he says. “But the traditional way of consuming yerba maté aligns with my own personal values – to slow down and take the time out of your day to enjoy it.”
This idea is somewhat similar to the Slow Food philosophy, which embraces the idea of taking time to enjoy food and beverages – including coffee.
How do you prepare yerba maté?
Traditionally, dried yerba maté leaves are placed in a gourd. You then add hot water (which needs to be lower than boiling temperature, otherwise it could damage the brewing vessel) and allow the leaves to steep for a few minutes.
Once brewed, yerba maté is usually consumed through a bombilla, which is a metal straw containing a built-in filter. The gourd can then be refilled with water as often as needed or until the leaves have lost the majority of their flavour.
Callum tells me that while some consumers today opt for glass or steel brewing vessels and straws, many still prefer handmade gourds and bombillas made from natural materials. These can include certain types of woods, such as Palo Santo, or can even be made from hollowed, cured, and dried calabash gourds – a member of the squash family.
Many people believe that drinking yerba maté from a traditional gourd imparts more flavour to the beverage, and ultimately enhances the overall experience.
“Compared to drinking from a mug, using a traditional gourd has far more cultural significance,” Callum explains. “You have to take care of your gourd, so the connection you have with it is unique.”
Andrés tells me that there is a culture of yerba maté enthusiasts.
“For people who really enjoy the beverage, they sometimes make their own gourds, bombillas, and other accessories because the culture is interesting to them,” he says.
Victoria de la Torre is the founder of SouthmaTea, a yerba maté supplier based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She tells me that children drink maté in schools in Argentina, often adding milk and sugar to “make it more pleasant” for less developed palates.
Andrés says that climate can influence how people prepare yerba maté. For example, in countries which experience longer periods of warmer weather, many people choose to brew the beverage using cold water – which undoubtedly affects total brew time and the extraction of flavours.
Describing its flavours
“Bitter” is often a word used to describe yerba maté, but Victoria says that its flavours can vary according to factors such as origin and drying methods.
“Similar to coffee and wine, the flavours can vary depending on the terroir where it was grown,” she explains. “Some can have a more earthy flavour, while others can taste more complex, spicy, and bittersweet.”
She adds that Argentinian maté is usually grown in mineral-rich soil in the country’s rainforest, before the leaves are dried over fire, which can give it some smoky notes.
Andrés agrees, saying that once you become familiar with the flavours of maté, you are more likely to know where it was grown – much like with single origin coffees. He finds that Argentinian yerba maté is sweeter, making it a popular choice for first-time drinkers.
Health benefits – and risks
Around the world, many people drink yerba maté for its supposed health benefits.
Clinical research has found that consumption of maté is associated with a number of positive effects, such as weight loss and protecting the immune system. Moreover, it contains several antioxidants such as saponins and polyphenols, which have certain anti-inflammatory and cholesterol-lowering properties.
However, these health benefits vary according to how much yerba maté you consume and how you drink it, as well as how the leaves are dried and processed.
“There are many varieties of maté,” Callum says. “Some are weaker-tasting, while others are stronger.
“Because it can be consumed over longer periods of time, it doesn’t result in a caffeine rush,” he adds.
“Yerba maté can be compared to coffee in terms of caffeine content,” Victoria explains. “It can be consumed throughout the day and it can help to keep you alert and energised.”
Typically, a 150ml serving of yerba maté contains about 80mg of caffeine, but different varieties can have varying amounts of caffeine. However, continually adding more water to the drink means caffeine intake can increase significantly.
Additionally, the stems and leaves are often dried over fire, and some sources suggest this can form polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. These are known to be carcinogenic, but more clinical research is required to scientifically verify any purported health risks and benefits of yerba maté.
The rise of RTD yerba maté
Andrés says that while more traditional methods of consumption may not appeal to the majority of people, the increasing diversification of yerba maté products and preparation methods is helping to make the drink more popular.
“In the US, some people brew it in a French press,” he says. “RTD yerba maté-based energy drinks are also becoming more popular, which can also include fruit to create different flavours.”
There are a number of RTD canned maté products now available, particularly in the US and Europe. One prominent brand is Guayakí, which was first established in California in 1996. In addition to selling loose leaf yerba maté, the company also sells canned and carbonated maté beverages.
In 2021, the Coca-Cola owned subsidiary Honest Tea launched a RTD yerba maté drink, which included a number of different flavoured options.
Callum also notes the variety of sweetened single-serve maté bags now available on the market for those looking for more convenient preparation methods.
In regards to its market potential, Andrés says that yerba maté is typically cheaper than coffee, which could help it to become more popular. However, he points out that because of the small number of maté-growing countries, it’s unlikely that production could scale significantly.
Callum believes that there needs to be a distinction between traditional yerba maté and RTD options – largely because they offer different experiences to consumers.
The rich history of yerba maté undoubtedly makes it a culturally significant drink for many people in South America. For more traditional drinkers, the ritual of preparing and sharing maté with friends and family is vitally important.
However, with the growing number of maté products available around the world, it’s clear that more modern ways of consuming the beverage are also becoming steadily popular.
“More people should try it,” Andrés concludes. “It’s an interesting drink with a lot of traditional heritage, but it isn’t valued enough.”
Enjoyed this? Then read our article on what is a matcha latte?
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