Yerba mate: South America’s Indigenous tea, from Paraguay to Syria

Man sipping yerba mate in Montevideo, Uruguay. Photo by jorgeloayza via Flickr. CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED.

Everywhere you go in Argentina or Uruguay, you’ll see people engaging in an old and much-loved ritual: sipping a hot, slightly bitter infusion of caffeinated leaves from a dried gourd through a filtered metal straw, before passing the gourd to their friends to share. It’s yerba mate, South America’s Indigenous tea with a long and storied history.

“Yerba mate” is the common name for Ilex paraguariensis, a shrub native to South America whose dried and cured leaves are brewed in hot water to produce a popular caffeinated drink called mate. Long consumed by the Indigenous Guaraní and Tupi peoples of what is today Paraguay, mate spread rapidly throughout South America during the Spanish Empire. Today, mate is the favorite drink of Paraguay, Argentina, and Uruguay, as well as parts of Chile, Brazil, Bolivia, and even the Middle East. But where did this South American infusion originate and how did it captivate so many millions of daily drinkers around the world?

The first people known to cultivate and drink mate were the Guaraní peoples of pre-Columbian Paraguay. While its consumption was limited to a few regions of Paraguay, mate was at least familiar to other Indigenous communities in South America. While the term “yerba” comes from Spanish, meaning “herb,” the term “mate” derives from the Quechua word “mati,” referring to the dried calabash gourds in which mate is traditionally served. Traces of yerba mate found in a Quechua tomb near Lima suggest that mate may have been held in prestige far from its Paraguayan heartland, perhaps due to its medicinal connotations and ritual applications. The Quechua etymology also explains why to this day both the drink and the container it is served in are known as “mate.”

When Spanish colonizers arrived in the Southern Cone — modern-day Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina, and Chile — in the mid-sixteenth century, they soon encountered the caffeinated leaves being consumed in large quantities by several Indigenous populations. By the late sixteenth century, mate was already popular among Spaniards in the region of Asunción, the eventual capital of Paraguay. Mate was popular enough by 1596 that one Spanish official in Asunción claimed that Spaniards addicted to mate sold their possessions or went into debt to obtain the precious herb. The colonial government briefly attempted to control the mate trade in the belief that mate drinking was a dangerous habit — a belief tinged by racism based on its Indigenous origins. Even so, by the early seventeenth century its popularity was such that it began to spread to other corners of the Spanish Empire. For a time, yerba mate was an important commodity in colonial cities far from where it is commonly consumed today, such as in Peru and Ecuador.

One of the most important chapters in the history of mate came with the arrival of the Jesuit Order in Paraguay in the early seventeenth century. The Jesuits, a Catholic order of priests, acted as a vanguard force of colonialism on the fringes of the Spanish Empire. In Paraguay, they established a series of mission settlements, or “reductions,” characterized by political and economic autonomy from the Spanish crown. Because the Jesuit reductions needed to establish an independent economic base, and yerba mate was the most valuable commodity in Paraguay, many settlements turned to yerba mate cultivation. Initially, they followed the traditional method of dispatching Indigenous harvesters long distances to gather leaves from wild stands. However, this was costly, time-consuming, and dangerous, so the Jesuits found another way, becoming the first to domesticate the plant — a feat not repeated until the nineteenth century, as the Jesuits kept their methods secret. Before long, the Jesuits held a near-monopoly on the colonial mate industry. Jesuit mate was eventually so cheap and abundant that, in the absence of gold coins, it was used as currency in the reductions.

In 1767, the Jesuit Order was suppressed in the Spanish Empire and the Paraguayan reductions, together with their mate monopoly, fell into decline. Even so, Paraguay remained the center of the mate industry and consumption of the drink continued to expand throughout colonial South America, even reaching southern Europe by the late eighteenth century — though it never rivaled the popularity of other colonial cash crops like cocoa, tea, and coffee, the three most important caffeinated beverages in early modern Europe. Paraguay only lost its preeminent position as the top mate producer following independence, as Argentina and Brazil began to vie for control over the mate market. By then, Argentina also had the largest consumer population, a fact unchanged to this day, where mate is celebrated as the national beverage. The ruinous Paraguayan War of 1864–1870, which demographically and economically devastated Paraguay in its fight against the combined forces of Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay, further diminished the Paraguayan mate industry for decades.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, mate competed with other beverages like coffee and tea. In Chile, for example, mate consumption eventually gave way to the latter drinks in most regions, leaving Paraguay, Argentina, and Uruguay as the heartland of mate consumption.

In an interesting twist of fate, however, the mate market was destined for expansion into an unexpected region: the Levant region of the Middle East, namely Lebanon and Syria. Mate was introduced there by Syrian immigrants to Argentina who brought it back with them upon their return. To this day, it remains a popular local tradition, especially among the Druze, a secretive ethnoreligious community who mostly inhabit Syria and Lebanon. The popularity of mate among the Druze has made the Levant the region with the highest mate consumption outside of South America. In recent years, mate has also gained popularity in North America and Europe in the form of caffeinated mate extracts in energy drinks and health elixirs, though its traditional preparation is still unfamiliar to consumers. 

While mate is most commonly drunk hot and unfurnished with other additions, there are a wide variety of styles and blends. In the hot and humid tropical zones of Paraguay and northern Argentina, it’s often drunk with ice water, fruit juice, and herbs in a preparation called “tereré.” The form of curing and processing yerba mate leaves also varies, producing different flavors and styles. Some of the most typical varieties are con palo (with stems), sin palo (without stems), aged, and smoked. Depending on the style and preparation, different kinds of mate can have very different flavor profiles. One favorite topic of discussion is whether mate should be consumed sweetened (mate dulce) or unsweetened (mate amargo).

The social and ritual aspects of mate are just as complex. In social settings, there is typically a server called a cebador who prepares the mate before drinking the very bitter first infusion. Then they refill the mate and pass it to the next person, who drinks it before returning it to the cebador, and the cycle continues. Often these mate circles go on for hours, with multiple refills — an important part of social life in the mate-drinking countries. A popular saying in Argentina has it that “a mate is denied to no one.”

As we celebrate International Tea Day, recognizing the historical, cultural, and economic significance of tea worldwide, let’s also remember the importance of South America’s Indigenous infusion for millions of people in the region and beyond. From its Guaraní origins to its contemporary popularity as far afield as the Levant and North America, mate has earned its place as one of the great tea traditions of the world.

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