The Brits might have a deeply-steeped tea tradition. The Italians’ espresso game is surely strong. Americans know where it’s at when it comes to iced coffee. But none of that compares to the strong tradition that South America has with its energy-boosting beverage of choice, mate.
Mate is an infusion made by steeping the dried leaves of the yerba mate plant (a species of the holly family) in near-boiling water. It is traditionally drank from a calabasa gourd — though these days the drinking vessel can be made out of just about anything — with a silver metal straw called a bombilla. The straw is integral to the drinking process because it filters out the leaves. Drank straight, a sip of hot mate will taste a lot like a strong, slightly bitter tea and it has been enjoyed in the Southern Hemisphere for hundreds of years. This is what yerba mate looks like before it’s steeped.
Mate has a long history in Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Southern Brazil and Bolivia. It is not uncommon to see people walking the streets with mate in hand in those countries — some even with a thermos of hot water in the other hand to refill the drink as it gets low. It’s custom to add water to yerba mate around 15-20 times, until it loses its flavor. Drinking mate is often times a group experience; it’s a symbol of hospitality and friendship. A host will commonly pass mate around in a circle so every one can have a few sips. But why is it so beloved? Our best guess: the energy the drink imparts.
Mate gives the same amount of energy as a cup of coffee, without the jittery feeling that some people get from caffeine. The LA Times proposes that it’s because one cup of yerba mate contains 80 milligrams of caffeine, which is twice as much as black tea but significantly less than a cup of coffee. (Other schools of thought believe that mate does not contain caffeine, but another type of stimulating compound which is the reason for the cleaner buzz.) One thing everyone agrees on is that it’s loaded with antioxidants, vitamins and minerals which only adds to its energy boosting power. We think the fancy metal straw adds to the appeal too. Some people believe that mate is loaded with health benefits, but there are no studies as of yet that back up the claim.
Mate can be served sweetened with sugar or not. And these days, one can even find it sold in tea bags with all kinds of added flavors. Whichever way you try it, just be sure to drink it with friends.