The Simple Explanation
Yerba Mate is a green tea infusion from South America that is traditionally drunk with a gourd called mate and a straw called bombilla (But does not have to. It can easily be drunk as a tea bag which we offer, brewed in a coffee pot, as iced tea, and many other ways. See our section on Different Ways to Drink Mate). The tea is very distinct with a strong natural herbal taste, but it is now also available ORGANIC and FLAVORED. It has a potent yet soothing kick that will keep you awake and alert and will help you stay focused when you would normally be tired and worn out. It does this without all the caffeine of coffee. If drank properly it is a great dietary supplement, suppressing the appetite while providing you with all the nutrients needed to sustain life, including 24 vitamins and minerals and 15 amino acids. In addition, this South American yerba tea has many other herbal health benefits! (see Health Benefits of Yerba Mate). It also holds a very symbolic ritualistic tradition around the gathering of close friends, family, and community in that only one gourd - mate is used to serve several people and is usually passed around. That is it in a nutshell.
But if you want a more detailed explanation, here you go:
Mate is a tea-like beverage consumed mainly in Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and southern Brazil. It is brewed from the dried leaves and stemlets of the perennial tree Ilex paraguarensis which is an evergreen member of the holly family.
The scientific name Ilex paraguarensis was given by the French naturalist and botanist Auguste de Saint Hilaire in 1822. The tree belongs to the family Aquifoliaceae and grows between the parallels 10° and 30° (South) in the Paraná and Paraguay river basins. It is a tropical or subtropical plant typical of the Alto Paraná region, Alto Uruguay region, and the Argentine NE, that needs high temperatures, high humidity, and up to 1500 mm of annual rain. On average 300,000 tons of Yerba Mate are produced yearly.
In the wild, the plant can reach a height of up to 15 meters and, in this case, it takes about 25 years to develop completely.
Yerba-Mate grows wild in Argentina, Chile, Peru, and Brazil, but is most abundant in Paraguay where it is also cultivated. New cultivating methods have been implemented in recent years and you can now find Organic Certified Yerba Mate Green Herbal Tea. The Mate leaves are used nutritionally and medicinally. For the tea infusion, Mate leaves are usually ground and steeped in hot water for several minutes and served hot or cold (this process is called Terere).
The Yerba Mate plant flowers between the months of October and December. The flowers are small, polygamous, dioicous, with calix and corolla in a tetrameric disposition. The fruit resembles a pepper berry. The leaves are alternated, cuneiform, elliptical or oval, with the border slightly serrated. Among several varieties, there are three that are the most important: "angustifolia", "longifolia" and "latifolia." The YerbaMate plant is classified according to Western herbal medicine as aromatic, stimulant, bitter, astringent, diuretic, purgative, sudorific, febrifuge, alterative, and stimulant, but these terms do not reflect the true richness of its properties.
When it comes to flavor, Mate has a characteristic mature taste which is somewhat bitter, sweet, withered leaf like, and alfalfa-like, similar to that obtained from tea (Camellia sinensis). There are 196 volatile chemical compounds and out of these, 144 are also found in tea.
The word "Mate" derives from the quichua word "matí" that names the gourd (Lagenaria vulgaris), which is traditionally used to drink the infusion. You will find several other names that refer to the mate infusion including Paraguay tea, Jesuit tea, missionary tea, and South American holly, but the most common is Yerba or Yerba Mate.