The history, trading and popularity of tea and coffee are well documented. Much less is known about another infusion: yerba mate, the ancient South American drink, first discovered by natives over 2,000 years ago, that went on to become the continent’s first commercial product.
‘Yerba’ means ‘herb’. The mate plant (Ilex paraguariensis) grows in the North-East of Argentina, Southern Brazil and in Paraguay. The dried, ground leaves of the plant are sold in 500g and 1kg bags in grocery stores and supermarkets and come in a variety of forms: plain, with herbs, citrus peels or smoked. Yerba mate is also referred to as the Jesuit’s herb, Paraguay’s tea or Caá, which is the native Guaraní name for it.
While mate is an infusion, the ceremony around preparing it requires a specific set of instruments and skills. Providing you can find original yerba mate in your hometown (or on the internet), you will also need:
Mate-gourd or porongo
Traditionally mate was prepared in a dried, hollowed out pumpkin or gourd or in a wooden receptacle. Nowadays it is more common to use glass, stainless steel or plastic as these are easier to clean.
This is a metal straw, one end of which contains small holes which act as a filter, separating the mate strands from the infused water. In the past, traditional gaucho bombillas were made out of silver, but these have evolved into stainless steel, alpaca silver or hollow tacuara-bamboo sticks.
British botanist and explorer Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817-1911) was the first to document the use of the Ilex plant genus in the Americas. He discovered widespread use of the infusion stretching from the Appalachians (USA) to Tierra del Fuego (Argentina). The Creek communities of Florida, South Carolina, Alabama and Texas would engage in an elaborate ceremony of consuming this strong, concentrated infusion for several consecutive days. This would lead to hallucinations and vomiting and was considered to be a deeply purifying ritual.
Towards the South, many communities recognised the refreshing and stimulating properties of mate, and some groups had additional uses for it.
The Shuar or Canelos, from Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador saw the medicinal power of Ilex. They fed it to their dogs as a stimulant before going hunting.
The Incas presented dried coca and mate leaves as a gift to the gods.
The Xetá, from the Guairá region of Brazil, would prepare an alcoholic beverage to drink during their long walks through the rainforest.
The Charrúas, from Uruguay learned of the existence of yerba mate through their neighbours, the Guaraní. Both groups considered it to be a sacred plant.
Yerba mate was traditionally harvested manually, with the lower leaves of the mate bushes plucked by hand, the higher branches reached using tools and hooks made of wood and sharp stone. The leaves were transported in bunches to a type of barbecue or smoking area, where they would be dried and so prevented from rotting. Once dry, the leaves were chopped and ground with large stones to make them fit to infuse in water, before being sifted through a mesh of natural fibres to filter out any dust.
The Spanish arrive
An influx of European settlers at the start of the 16th Century greatly influenced the procurement and distribution of yerba mate. A notable arrival was that of Spanish conqueror Salazar de Espinoza, founder of the city of Nuestra Señora de Asunción in 1531 (today’s capital city of Paraguay). Through their connections with the Guaranís, the Spaniards became fond of yerba mate. Demand for yerba mate grew regionally and aborigines were drafted in to harvest native yerbales that grew within the jungle.
The consumption of yerba mate grew exponentially through the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata (roughly comprising the territory between today’s cities of Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Asunción, Santa Cruz de la Sierra and Mendoza). It also became popular with the Viceroyalty of Perú and in Western and Northern areas of South America. By the end of the 16th Century, this small mate-producing region had become a large scale producer, trading with the major Latin American settlements.
This increase in demand led to a need for manual harvesting methods and technology to evolve. Cows or mules began to transport carriages laden with vast quantities of mate. The drying process progressed to the use of large metal rolls that spun over a fire, and grinding eventually took place in mechanical mills.
The Jesuits and Yerba Mate
As urban settlements grew, increasing numbers of Jesuits began settling throughout the Atlantic Rainforest in their Missions. They educated and evangelised the Guaranís and established yerba mate as a trading product.
Jesuits were well-known as academics, and several of them were particularly interested in studying the plant, such as Antonio Ruiz de Montoya, Pedro Lozano, Nicolás del Techo and Bernabé Cobo. They taught the Guaranís how to improve their harvest techniques and discovered how to germinate and cultivate the plant’s seeds, creating a well-organised venture over time.
The Misiones area is framed by two major rivers that connect directly with the Atlantic Ocean: the Paraná and the Uruguay Rivers. Jesuits used mules to travel inland, to where the plants grew, and shipped the leaves downstream towards the major rivers. Large drying ovens were built at the mouth of the Parana and Uruguay rivers, where they sent shipments of mate to major cities like Buenos Aires. To this day, remnants of the ovens can be found at the mouth of certain creeks.
The medicinal properties of the yerba mate plant became increasingly well documented: it is a natural stimulant that eases constipation, uremia, headaches, pneumonia, skin burns, heatstroke, scarlet fever, jaundice and warts. The Guaranís were well aware of all these beneficial properties, referring to payé, the native word for magic.
In Guaraní culture, there are at least two myths that explain the existence of yerba mate. In the first myth, Yasí (the moon god) and Araí (the cloud god) offer yerba mate seeds to the natives as a gift to thank them from saving their lives from a jaguar. In the second myth, Yasí offers the seeds to the natives in the form of rain with the help of Araí, by way of thanks after a visit to Earth.
This concept of the divine origin of yerba mate, granted by the main god Tupá, was seen by Catholic evangelisers as being starkly at odds with their religion. They began to demonise its consumption, claiming that it was an addictive manifestation of evil forces that weakened the spirit. Franciscans and Dominicans referred to its stimulant properties, which were considered aphrodisiac and therefore a deadly sin.
Despite hard opposition from the Church, yerba mate proved to be highly profitable for the colonies, a fact not lost on the Jesuits, who were well aware of its potential. With the help of the Spanish Crown, they secured market permits and decided to exorcise the plant, reversing its demonic image. Overnight, the plant regained its holy status, not only in the Guaraní religion but also in the Christian community. This was possibly one of the earliest cases of rebranding in the history of marketing!
The Jesuit Expulsion
In 1768, the Jesuits were expelled from the region following a period of political unrest. This abruptly ended their relationship with the Guaraní and their involvement in yerba mate production. Crucially, the Jesuits took with them many of the secrets of the plant’s germination and cultivation, leaving the Guaraní without the protection of the Missions and increasingly open to exploitation.
Commercial trade begins
1864 saw the start of the deadliest interstate conflict in Latin America’s history. The Paraguayan War or War of the Triple Alliance involved a protracted battle between Paraguay and the alliance of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. The conflict involved most of the population of the area at that time, and the vivanderos (traders of the military) supplied soldiers and goods for the troops.
Mate, now famed for its stimulating qualities, was in greater demand than ever, but as the populations of Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil grew exponentially, so too did the demand for mate. Excessive exploitation left the Rainforest stripped of yerba and the supply became severely threatened. Without access to the knowledge of the Jesuits the Guaraní were ill equipped to grow and harvest the plant.
In the absence of the Jesuits, there were many failed attempts to grow yerba in plantations. Finally, in 1895 a French botanist named Carlos Thais discovered that yerba seeds would only germinate properly if they had been digested by birds first. He found that he could solve this problem by treating seeds with hot water for several hours before planting them. The plantation was organised and business began to take off.
The ‘green gold’
By the early 1900s, the first established plantations of yerba mate began to emerge. Julio Martin is considered to be the first producer of mate on a commercial scale. He owned 1500 hectares of land and the biggest mill in Argentina in the area of San Ignacio. He founded the Martin & Co. firm in 1903, producing the brand La Hoja (The Leaf) which is still available today.
Nowadays, Argentina is the main producer and exporter of yerba mate in the world, specifically from the North East provinces of Misiones and Corrientes. In 2019, Argentina produced 1,845,269,134 lb of yerba mate, of which Argentines consumed 610,680,466 lb. The greatest importer of yerba mate in 2019 was Syria, with 78% of Argentina’s exports. The remaining importers are Chile (11%), Lebanon (2%), United States (1.6%) and France (1.2%). The popularity of mate in such diverse areas of the world can be explained by the immigration into Argentina during the 20th and 21st Centuries. The consumption of mate was already so widespread that many immigrants adopted them. When some of them returned to their home countries, they took this popular new tradition with them.
Brazil and Paraguay are also prominent producers of yerba mate and their populations are enthusiastic consumers of the drink.
More than a drink…
Mate is the quintessential Argentine drink and has grown to be a cultural symbol of Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and southern Brazil. Its consumption is strongly related to a culture of hospitality and the rural gaucho life. Mate is about sharing in life’s simple pleasures. More than just a drink, it is viewed as an entire social occasion.
A few years ago, a contemporary journalist wrote: “Mate is not a beverage. Well, it is a liquid and it is consumed through the mouth. But nobody drinks mate when they’re thirsty.”