Yerba mate, the beloved and bitter South American answer to tea, is a major part of Argentinean culture. You can spot an Argentinean traveler anywhere in the world because they’re the ones carting around a thermos of hot water, a mate cup, a metal straw, and a big bag of yerba wherever they roam. We recently got a crash course in yerba mate to produce our own yerba mate guide covering the lingo, buying and brewing tips, and the rules of sharing yerba mate in Argentina so you don’t embarrass yourself when you’re offered a hot cup of yerba by new friends in Argentina.
A beginner’s guide to yerba mate
Nicolás Tiferes and Mercedes Buey Fernández are the founders of Yerba Mate Mathienzo. They also offer 1.5-hour yerba mate experiences (in English or Spanish) during which they tell no-nothings like us everything we need to know in order to not be a yerba mate moron. The fun, informal experiences happen in a private room above the flagship La Martina store which supplies polo gear (from saddles to clothing) to polo players all over the world including Prince (now King) Charles. The whole place looks like what Ralph Lauren wishes his stores looked like (leather couches, black and white polo photographs, heavy wooden table with a leather top, etc.). We actually wonder who nailed the look first…
Mathienzo was started in 2012 after Nicolás and Mercedes, who are trained as industrial designers, created a line of mate cups made of vibrantly colored silicone. They sold more than 500,000 cups but soon realized their customers had no reason to return and buy more since one cup is enough and their silicone design is very long-lasting. So they decided to create high-quality, modern, organic yerba as well.
Forty years ago, yerba mate was almost exclusively a drink for the poor and the hard-working (like chewing coca leaves in Peru or Bolivia, yerba mate can lessen feelings of hunger and give you energy). Today, all types of Argentineans drink yerba mate. “Yerba mate is part of our DNA,” says Nicolás. Toddlers drink the stuff alongside their parents and grandparents. Argentinean soccer icon Lionel Messi drinks it.
Within the 25-40 year old demographic, however, the yerba mate tradition is waning so Nicolás and Mercedes targeted them. So far, it’s working. Mathienzo sales are growing in Argentina and they are exporting their yerba to Russia, Thailand, Australia, and Chile.
Here are the most important things Nicolás and Mercedes taught us about yerba mate.
Yerba mate lingo
yerba – the dried, aged, and chopped leaves and stems of a plant related to ivy (in Buenos Aires, where Spanish has become inflected with hints of Portuguese and Italian, the correct pronunciation of yerba is sherba)
mate – the cup, made of a gord, wood, glass, metal, or silicone, that’s used to brew and drink the yerba
bombilla– the metal straw used to sip the brewed yerba out of the mate
How to buy yerba mate
Yerba, which is related to holly, is grown in Northern Argentina (where the Mathienzo company grows its organic yerba), Paraguay, and Brazil. It can be picked by hand or by machine (Mathienzo yerba is hand-picked). Harvested yerba is then dried and aged for between one month and two years. Mathienzo ages their yerba for two years because they believe that extra time produces a more balanced flavor.
Dried and aged yerba is then chopped and this is where things can get tricky. Yerba is naturally bitter, but the correct ratio of properly chopped leaves, stems, and powder can temper bitterness and enhance other more subtle flavors. The size and regularity of the chopped yerba is also important. High-volume commercial brands tend to rush the drying process, age for short periods, use a cruder chop, and include more powder in their ratios to keep costs low. This produces a cheaper and more bitter yerba. Mathienzo dries carefully, ages for a very long period of time, chops precisely, and includes just 15% powder in their ratio for a smoother, less bitter flavor.
Nicolás and Mercedes believe that the future of yerba mate is in blended products that combine yerba with other ingredients. Mathienzo now offers three blends including one with rose petals from Patagonia and another with peppermint from Cordoba. Other blended ingredients include cloves, chamomile, cacao husks, cardamom (our favorite), and one with calendula flowers and lemongrass.
How to brew yerba mate
Fill your mate cup 3/4 full with yerba.
Put your palm over your mate and shake the dry yerba like you’re Tom Cruise in Cocktail (this will produce a circle of green powder on your palm that some call a “baptism mark”).
Tip your mate cup and move the yerba so that it’s on an angle with one side lower than the other. Then pour a bit of hot water into the lowest side of the yerba.
Cover the mouthpiece of the bombilla with your thumb, position it so that the bend in the straw faces out of the cup for easy sipping, and push the straw into the moist yerba until it reaches the bottom of your mate cup. Then carefully slide the bombilla across the bottom of the mate cup until it’s under the opposite side of the cup where the yerba is deepest. The straw should never be moved again until it’s time to dump out the finished yerba after drinking.
Now slowly pour in hot water until it reaches the rim of the cup. A note on hot water: water for yerba mate should be short of boiling (like with coffee, fully boiled water lacks oxygen and produces an inferior brew). In Argentina, many homes have an electric kettle that heats water to a yerba mate setting (less than boiled) or all the way to fully boiled.
You can also brew cold yerba mate to create a drink called tereré. Just follow all of the steps above, but substitute the hot water with cold unsweetened juice. Some bars in Buenos Aires are now using tereré as a base for inventive cocktails.
How to drink yerba mate
Yerba mate is as much about the social interaction of passing around a shared cup as it is about hydration, a buzz, or the purported health benefits of the stuff (including diuretic and anti-oxidant properties). Sharing yerba mate is a way of bonding, connecting, and a way of leveling society. For example, in Argentina it’s perfectly normal for your boss to pass around a mate cup with employees at all levels.
Hopefully, you’ll be included in a round or two of communal yerba mate drinking when you travel to Argentina. Here are the rules you need to know about sharing yerba mate.
1. One person will act as the servidora (server) and will be responsible for preparing the mate cup, filling it with water, and passing it around to members of the group in the same order every single time. The servidora also drinks the first cup.
2. One mate cup and one bombilla straw will be used by everyone. The straw may or may not be wiped off between drinkers. The same dose of yerba will be refreshed with a new dose of hot water by the servidora before it’s passed on to the next person. This means the first round will be strongest and most bitter with subsequent rounds becoming weaker and milder until the yerba is depleted and dumped out.
3. When the cup comes to you, drink the whole thing. Do not slurp it down in one gulp (it’s hot!). But do not linger over it either. If you drink too slowly the water on the bottom gets cold and that does bad things to the taste of the yerba. It is perfectly acceptable, by the way, to make a slurping noise through the straw when you reach the last few drops of your cup of yerba mate.
4. When you’ve finished the liquid in the cup, pass it back to the servidora.
5. Do not move the straw. Ever. If you shift the straw or lift it, yerba can enter the straw and clog it.
6. When you have had enough yerba mate, simply say gracias the next time the cup is offered to you. You will then be passed by as others continue to drink. Our instinct is to say gracias each time the servidora hands us the mate cup, but that will only confuse things. Save your gracias for when you’ve had enough.
7. If you really do not like yerba mate or you don’t feel comfortable sharing a communal cup and straw, the best way to graciously excuse yourself from sharing is explain that you’ve tried it and it’s not your cup of tea.
Book your own yerba mate experience with Nicolás and Mercedes of Mathienzo here.
Here’s more about travel in Argentina