Where does yerba mate come from?
The benefits of yerba mate were discovered 3000 years B.C. But its growing popularity strengthened throughout history thanks to its countless health benefits and its cultural significance.
Mate is a very popular beverage in Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and even some regions of Brazil. Beyond that, yerba mate is considered a cultural heritage in these countries, because it is prepared and shared in a very special way. Also, thanks to its countless health benefits, it has crossed borders to other continents and is now being recognized as one of the best drinks in the World. But in order to understand its growing significance and transcendence, first we have to understand the history and origin of yerba mate.
The Guaraní and their “yerba”
According to the book “Caá Porã: The Spirit of Yerba Mate” published by Las Marías; the discovery of yerba mate can be attributed to the Kaingang ethnic group, who ate the raw leaves about 3000 years B.C.
However, it was the Guarani (native people in some South American countries) who really worked to exploit the benefits of yerba mate and who perfected the technique and process, by placing the leaves in a gourd with water and sipping the liquid through straws they made from sugar cane. In fact, the word “mate” comes from the Guarani term “Caa-mate”: “Caa” means plant or herb, and “mate” refers to the gourd they used to drink it. They also knew about its nutritional value and sometimes they chewed the leaves directly, like the Kaingang.
Besides appreciating the health benefits of yerba mate, they also worshipped it as a sacred gift from the gods and gave yerba mate a special and spiritual meaning. They idolized it and believed that by drinking yerba mate, they were drinking the power of the jungle. This sacred, special meaning was the reason it later became a currency of exchange with other pre-Hispanic groups like Incas, Charrúas, Araucanos and Pampas, who eventually adopted yerba mate in their own cultures.
Popularity in colonial times
When the Spanish colonized South America, they learned the use and benefits of yerba mate from the Guarani, so it quickly gained great popularity. Soon, yerba mate was taken from its place of origin to all territories under Spanish rule.
It was mainly the Jesuit missionaries who spread the consumption of yerba mate in an extraordinary way. They predicted that its commercialization would have enormous economic potential, so they set out to investigate why the yerba mate tree could only grow in this particular region of the world. They later discovered the secret: the seeds were pre-digested by toucans (tropical birds in Central and South America). This discovery was confirmed half a century later by the French naturalist Aimé Bonpland.
The Spanish Jesuits were pioneers in the cultivation, transport and commercialization of yerba mate, although they preferred to drink it in tea bags and not with bombillas as the Guaraní did. That is why at some point yerba mate came to be known as “The Jesuit tea”.
The “gauchos” and their love for yerba mate
The “gauchos” (a kind of Argentine cowboy) settled down throughout Argentina, as well as Uruguay, Paraguay, and southern Brazil, Chile and even Bolivia. They were known for their independent, rural and semi-nomadic way of life. These skillful riders inhabited unused lands and built settlements and cities. They hunted the wild cattle brought by the Spanish and Portuguese colonizers. The gauchos were pioneers in preparing the traditional asado, which today represents one of the most deeply rooted traditions in countries like Uruguay and Argentina.
In their coexistence with native groups, the gauchos adopted yerba mate as part of their identity, along with the asado, horseback riding and their typical leather clothing. They drank yerba mate in groups, for breakfast, lunch, dinner and before bed. Drinking mate became a tradition that still endures: these cowboys would gather to socialize around a fire, and next to the beef asado, it was common to heat up water and pass on a cup of mate from hand to hand.
During the long process of Argentina’s independence in the 19th century, the habit of drinking mate was strengthened in the country’s folklore. Read more about Yerba Mate in Argentina.
Yerba mate, today
Yerba mate is grown in Argentina, Paraguay and southern Brazil, where the soil, temperature and humidity are ideal (read more about the production of yerba mate here). Although countless attempts have been made to cultivate and produce yerba mate in other regions like North America, Asia and Africa; the Ilex paraguariensis refuses to grow outside the lands of the Guarani.
In Argentina, mate tea is the most consumed drink after water, without distinction of gender, age or social class. According to the National Institute of the Yerba Mate, an average of 100 liters of mate are consumed per year, per person, in Argentina. Mate is present in more than 90% of the Argentinean homes. There is a great diversity of brands in the market, Las Marías being the leader (with its main brand Taragüi) with about 20% of the national market.
Although Argentina is the largest producer and exporter of yerba mate with 54% of the global market, it is currently gaining more and more popularity outside the limits of Latin America. Today it is possible to enjoy the benefits of this natural infusion far beyond the continent: yerba mate can be ordered online and received throughout Europe and the United States (see store locator). There is even a wide variety of both traditional and innovative yerba mate products.
Furthermore, drinking mate is a cultural affair and part of the lifestyle of the producing countries. In Argentina, mate is usually drunk in groups and in rounds, as part of a social ritual; and in Uruguay it is mostly drunk individually, but literally anytime, anywhere. From the Guarani to the Millennials, the irreplaceable meaning of yerba mate remains as -or more- valid as ever for South Americans; and this goes far beyond its function as a stimulating drink.
Yerba mate is undoubtedly one of the most surprising and pleasurable discoveries the South American continent has offered the world, and more and more benefits are being discovered in addition to its extensive list of already known advantages.