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Maté: a tradition with a nice boost

by Elske Muiderman

Every Argentine remembers the first time he prepared and drank his own maté: a gentle rite of passage into adulthood. From that moment on you’re considered as an adult. Drinking this tea infusion isn’t only a tradition, but it also comes with it’s own ritual. But what i’s the essence of the drinking of maté exactly all about?


Maté is a dried mix of the leaves and twigs of the Yerba Maté tree, a . A plant that grows and is processed mainly in South America. After harvesting, the branches are dried – in some cases with a wood fire, which gives it a smokey flavor – and the leaves and twigs are broken into small pieces to create prepare the Yerba Maté for consumaption. There have been several studies concerning the possitive effects that the consumpation of maté has on our health. It contains for instance three different xanthines, of which the most important one is caffeine. This has a stimulating effect on concentration and endurance. Next to that, maté has a possitive effect on the heart tissue, relaxes the smooth muscle tissue, increases the metabolism (yes, it helps you to lose weight) and reduces cholesterol. Is this why the herbal infusion is so popular in South America?

One of the important elements of drinking maté is that you share it, with your family, friends or colleagues. It’s not like drinking a cup of coffee or tea together. Sharing maté means you take a sip and pass it on and this comes with a whole set of rules. This starts with the preparation of the infusion. First of all you need several pieces of equipment: a special wooden cup or gourd (a calabash), a metal straw (called a bombilla) and a thermos flask. The first two, the gourd and bombilla, are essential if you want to drink maté. The gourd / wooden cup has an aromatic effect on the taste of maté, that’s this is why glasses or metal cups are never used. This also means it’s important to clean the gourd and bombilla thoroughly with water (never use any kind of soap) after using it.



The maté is put in the gourd and a small a small amount of cold water is added. To maintain the taste of the maté for as long as possible, the water must be poured at one point in the gourd. That specific spot is where the bombilla is placed, at a diagonal angle. Beginning with cold water is important to slightly moisten the yerba and let it ‘get used’ to the water; starting with hot water might scald it and ruin the taste. After that only hot water is used, at somewhere between 65 and 85şC – certainly not boiling. This is also only added at the point where the bombilla goes into the maté. Through the bombilla the water is sucked out of the maté. Usually the first sip is very strong and depending on taste people drink it with a little bit of sugar mixed through the yerba (mate* dulce) or without, which maintains the bitter taste (mate amargo).

When drinking together, there is one person – the brewer – who prepares the maté and pours the water in. When you have taken your sip, the gourd is passed back to this person. After a refill it’s passed on to the next and usually the gourd passes and keeps passing on clockwise. When you’ve had enough, you say thank you (gracias) while passing it back. This can easily lead to confusion, since we’re used to saying ‘thank you’ out of courtesy. On the other hand, refusing a gourd when offered for the first time is often seen as offensive. There are some other things you shouldn’t do when drinking maté, for example, to stir the bombilla around in the maté. It’s carefully placed in a specific spot by the brewer, this person is the only one who moves the bombilla to a new spot. Another thing which is seen as an insult, is when you wipe the bombilla clean before you start to drink from it. Drinking from the same bombilla might be considered unhygienic by most Europeans but in South America it bears the message of accepting each other.  

In a variety of South American countries maté is consumed on a daily basis, but each has his own way of preparing it and occasions where it’s drunk. For instance in Uruguay it’s completely integrated into the streetscape. They are famous for their preparation of maté, which maintains the taste of the yerba very long. Everywhere you go, you can see people walking around with their thermos under their arm and a gourd in their hand. The Argentines on the other hand consider this as a bit vulgar. They confine themselves to drinking maté in the park, at home and at work. Nevertheless friends come together several times per week to drink maté and talk.

Yerba maté has a specific taste, either you like it or you don’t. It can be considered as a very strong, bitter tea. There are several brands and kinds of yerba maté, like Rosamonte, Cruz de Malta, Union and CBSé who all have their own taste. Most habitual drinkers stick to one particular brand. Within these brands there’s a range of different flavours as well. For example with or without twigs (con palo or sin palo), with mint, honey, lemon, orange or other kinds of fruit. There’s also yerba maté with less caffeine or with a mild flavor. In Holland there aren’t many stores which sell yerba maté or the maté derivatives. One who does is Simon Lévelt. They actually import their own, organic Argentinian yerba maté. Their maté will be served on different occasions during the festival. A very healthy and good way to regain energy for more dancing. Enjoy!
*Maté is possibly the only word in the English language that has an accent on one of its letters, but is borrowed from another language where it does not have that accent. In Spanish it is written as mate. Unfortunately, there are already a couple of words in English that are spelt that way (but pronounced differently to the Spanish word). To avoid confusion, English speakers have added an accent to reflect the pronounced ‘e’ at the end of yerba maté.


some more info on Mate

text editing : Stephen McCay

text Correction : Wendy Martin