Yerba Mate 101

My brilliant entrepreneur husband recently started his own e-commerce store selling yerba mate. I had never heard of mate before I met him, but I quickly learned about this important staple of Argentinean culture. In honor of this drink my husband loves, here is everything you need to know to understand mate culture.

While Argentinean culture is very European in many ways (love of coffee, gelato, and pizza for starters), the consumption of mate (pronounced mah-tay) is uniquely South American.

What tea is to the British, mate is to Argentina, except maybe more so. Argentineans drink mate all day long, on their own but especially in social settings. Family gatherings, afternoon chats and friendly get-togethers all revolve around the passing of mate. Couples take mate to the park for a romantic date. Even in Montanita, Ecuador we would often see groups of Argentineans sitting on the beach with thermoses of hot water, passing around a mate cup.

At home in the states, my husband and mother in law often share a cup of mate when we visit. The tea, and the ceremony that surrounds it is so important and bonding that it survives even in rural Pennsylvania.

Yerba mate tea in a calabash gourd
Yerba mate in calabash and dry herb.Traditional argentinian beverage

What is Mate?

Mate is a tea-like beverage made from the stems and leaves of a plant called yerba mate. The leaves contain caffeine and other natural stimulants and have all sorts of health benefits. It’s said to increase concentration, boost energy, and even help with weight control (Argentineans are quite skinny considering how much red meat and ice cream they eat, so I maybe buy this).

Mate can be served hot in the traditional manner described below, in tea bag form, or even cold as a sort of iced tea. The taste is almost like a very bitter green tea. I would say it’s an acquired taste.

 The Equipment

While mate is often taken on the go out of a  thermos, the traditional way to drink it is out of a specialized cup, called a gourd.

Mate is served in a communal cup (you’re all friends here so stop worrying about pesky things like germs). The cup is actually a vegetable gourd (sometimes the outer casing is metal or plastic) which the owner conditions with their own combination of preparation and fruit juice to give it a distinct taste. You drink out of a silver straw with a filter at the end, called a bombilla.

The Ritual

Drinking mate is a custom with pre-Colombian origins. As with any tradition that has survived that long, there is a ritual to drinking mate, a set of unspoken customs and rules. To defy them will make you appear very rude, or at least clueless. So, to drink Mate like a proper Argentinean here’s what you need to know.

Mate is a group activity. The participants sit in a circle and one person, the server or cebador, prepares the mate with hot water and, in Buenos Aires, sugar (they have a wicked sweet tooth). The gourd is then passed around the circle to the right, with each drinker enjoying the mate before passing it back to the served to be re-brewed. This continues for ages and ages, or until you run out of hot water.

The Rules

The biggest most important rule of mate drinking is DO NOT TOUCH THE BOMBILLA. It is considered very rude to re-adjust the straw or move it in any way.

When you are passed the mate, only touch the bombilla with your lips. Drink the mate until there is no more liquid. The straw will make a sucking, gurgling sound. The water will be very hot so there is no need to chug the drink, but don’t take too long to finish either- you don’t want to be a mate hog. When you are finished pass the cup back to the server.

Argentineans can drink a LOT of mate. While I can’t even have a caffeinated soda after 5 pm, most people in Argentina have no problem drinking gallons of mate just before bed (then again, they also stay up until ungodly hours on the regular, so maybe there is  a connection). If you’ve had enough, a simple thank you to the server should exempt you from further rounds. Even if you are not a huge fan, it is definitely polite to at least have one serving when offered.

While it sounds complicated, drinking mate is a casual activity, so ingrained into everyday life that nobody thinks twice about it. Don’t stress too much and do find an opportunity to participate in one of Argentina’s most sacred rituals.

Want to try yerba mate yourself, but live in the US? Visit Mike’s online store, Matero to get everything you need to get started.

23 thoughts on “Yerba Mate 101”

  1. I drink mate at home in in the US the way I drink loose leaf tea, filtered with a basket-style tea infuser (sans bombilla) so I’m glad to learn the proper etiquette!

  2. I have never heard of this either, it sounds like a fun ritual. Although of I am not a coffee fan, if it is more on the green tea side then bring it on.

  3. I love learning about things I have never heard of before but which are commonplace elsewhere! How did you find out about not moving the bombilla? Were you pre-warned or did you learn the hard way? 😉

  4. I had mate in both Argentina and Uruguay… and found funny how the customs varied between both countries – In Uruguay, is common to find people in groups walking on the streets sharing mate and even work colleagues sharing one “boquilla” among maybe 7-8 people (yeah, I did that too). But then in Argentina I found it much less common to drink it on the streets while walking and it seemed to be something much more personal to each person (no so much of sharing among a big group!)

  5. I use to drink mate while doing homework/writing very long papers while in college. I bought the bombilla off of eBay and the tea from some online shop. I would use a very heavy and large ceramic cup I made. It is absolutely delicious and in my opinon tastes much better than other teas, which usually means I’m drinking 5+ cups in one sitting.

    This drink Interwines my love of culture and tea into one. Hope to drink it in South America one day.

    Glad someone covered this!

  6. I love mate! I have yet to experience it culturally in Argentina, but my friend from South America brought some to a gathering and it was so interesting to learn about it! Thanks for the extra info, I loved it! Photos are great too.

  7. Mate is awesome! Sugar isn’t always added in Bs As, though. According to my friend who used to live there, the sugar vs. no sugar actually tends to be a socioeconomic thing.

    1. Hey Kat! I’m from Argentina. “the sugar vs. no sugar” is a matter of taste.
      Also not everyone likes to drink mate, I actually do always.

  8. I’ve never, ever heard nor read about this before Steph, not in a single post I’ve come across about Argentina – thanks for sharing! Actually sounds lip-smackingly good to me as I love green tea 🙂

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