Fads come and go, but mate is Argentina’s most traditional drink and it’s here to stay. We’ll teach you all about it: from a short history of mate and how to drink it, to different types of flavorings to customize this herb-based brew.
Written by Carla Chinski
Mate 101: The Origins Of the Cebada
So, you want to learn about mate. Mate is as Argentine as the dulce de leche or the empanada. Made up of the mate herb, a container, and a metal straw, mate is definitely an acquired taste. You might be used to drinking a hot cup of sweetened tea in the afternoon. But when in Rome (a.k.a. Argentina), bitter is the way to go.
Mate not just a beverage: it’s a social event, where sharing this drink becomes as relevant as, say, a meaningful conversation between friends. Mate is so ubiquitous, in fact, that you can get it at any supermarket, fair, and even kiosks. Even if you’re not in Argentina, you can order it from Amazon!
The yerba mate (or mate tea) is originally from Paraguay, and it dates back a couple of centuries. The Guaraní people even used it as currency. Later, in the 1800s, it was brought to Argentina by the conquistadores (conquerors) for trade. The Argentine government declared the mate National Drink in 2013, and no wonder: it’s practically everywhere you look, probably because of its versatility. As mate-sommelier Valeria Trapada said: “When it comes to mate, we are all equals.”
Tips to Get Mate Right the First Time
There are steps to getting the perfect cebada (brew). You might be wondering how closely you should follow the rules—yes, we just said rules. And the answer is: get it right every single time, or else. In almost any part of Argentina, more often than not, you will run into true mate snobs. They will definitely give you a look if you fail to follow the correct order for the cebada. These are some of the usual complaints (100% fact-checked): the water’s too hot or too cold, or just tepid. Not enough herbs; too much of them; the container is not well cured.
The reason people complain—and we Argentines are complainers by nature—is because there are lots of different parts that make for a great mate.
We’ve also included a guide to mate vocabulary, but you’ll probably need more than that to have a chat with the people in the round, and some Spanish lessons at Vamos Academy would be a great idea.
– The bombilla or metal straw: its purpose is to filter out and separate the water from the herbs;
– The porongo or mate: the actual container for the mate herbs. You have to cure it by leaving the brew untouched for a few days until dry, and then empty it. The container is then ready to be refilled with yerba and passed around;
– The actual herbs: there are many types of mate. The most well-known varieties range from a really bitter taste to a milder one. Some varieties incorporate other herbs into the mix, such as mint or chamomile. There is also a smoked variety. Last but not least, the one to rule them all:
– Water: at its ideal temperature, it must be kept in a thermos at 90°C (195°F) right before boiling. If the water boils, you risk burning the herbs. If the water is lukewarm—well, it’s just unpleasant.
You should first pour the mate herbs into the container. Then, shake the container carefully by covering the top of the container with one hand. Place it on a flat surface and voilà: you should have your herbs at a 45-degree angle. Next, wiggle the bombilla around a bit to bury it slightly on the opposite side of the slope you’ve already made. Pour hot water opposite the mound and let it absorb for a few minutes; you can take it from there. Keep in mind the first few rounds of mate are the most bitter.
Passing the mate around is a big deal (unless you’re by yourself!) There are a few rules you might want to take into account when sharing this drink: don’t hoard it for too long, don’t let its flavor get too weak after emptying a one-liter thermos (which is about the standard size).
It’s All About Making Mate Your Own
You can add almost anything to customize your mate. It will be just as delicious; in fact, the conquistadors added cinnamon, coconut, and herbs. Some other common (previously dried) herbs to add are: chamomile, mint, cedar, sage, and boldo. These herbs, when combined with mate tea’s medicinal properties, make for the healthiest of brews!
There are many benefits to drinking yerba mate. It has plenty of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals, and it helps reduce bad cholesterol. If you’re planning on pulling an all-nighter, mate’s got you covered: it has lots of mateína (yerba mate’s version of caffeine). Mate can also be a summer drink: the beverage known as tereré. This one’s a controversial choice, no doubt. It’s made up of yerba mate and cold, flavored water. A heavenly mix of a fruity and bitter drink.
For mate snobs, using sweetener is a no-no, but you can add sugar, honey, or even artificial sweetener to taste. You can also customize your straw and your container by going to one of Argentina’s famous ferias (artisanal fairs) to get it embossed or engraved; it makes for the perfect gift. So, fear not: once you get the hang of it, you can show off your skills to a group of Argentines, and they’ll surely be impressed.