From kickstarting the day to pushing through a tough workout, caffeine is a regular part of our diets; in fact, we consume over 100,000 metric tons of it worldwide each year! While it might seem obvious, most of that caffeine comes from drinks—and we are lucky to enjoy more caffeinated beverage options than ever before.
Despite being around for generations, one caffeinated drink in particular has recently been making its way into the spotlight. If you aren’t already familiar with yerba mate, then you’re sure to be hearing more about it soon. Discover the origins behind this ancient superfood, why it’s so unique, and how innovative beverage brands are using it to change what the world is drinking:
Yerba Mate’s Origins
Yerba mate is made from the leaves and twigs of the Ilex paraguariensis plant, a member of the holly family. Native to the subtropical regions of South America, this herbal remedy has been enjoyed by indigenous cultures like the Guaraní for over a millennium.
With the discovery of the New World in 1492, Spanish colonizers in the Parana-Paraguay system learned of the plant and the native’s practice of consuming it. Unlike cacao and coffee, yerba mate was not a domestic plant when first encountered by Europeans; instead, it was harvested traditionally from wild stands.
In an attempt to cultivate the resource, Jesuit missionaries built up plantations in the 1650s-70s. Agricultural efforts were difficult, though they helped to establish a commercial market for yerba mate throughout the rest of the Spanish Americas. Of course, yerba mate wouldn’t make it to Europe until much later, as the continent was already too focused on crops like tea, cacao, and coffee.
By the 1770s, the drink had become largely a niche product and staple of South America where it eventually became a chief export of Paraguay and surrounding countries like Brazil, Argentina, and Chile. It remained the preferred caffeinated beverage of the region even after coffee and tea were introduced.
Drinking Yerba Mate
Consumed at all hours of the day, yerba mate continues its reign as a South American favorite prepared and enjoyed the traditional way—among friends and family.
Yerba mate is drunk from a single hollowed out gourd called a “calabash” or “mate.” This vessel comes in all kinds of shapes and styles, and utilizes another instrument called a “bombilla”—essentially a thick, curved straw with a filter at one end. Any authentic yerba mate requires these tools for proper preparation.
First, a kettle of water is heated—but not boiled! While the water is being arranged, the mate or calabash is filled about two-thirds of the way with “yerba” (the herb). Covering the opening of the gourd, it is shaken gently to bring all the larger leaves and stems to the bottom of the container so as not to clog the bombilla later.
The vessel remains tilted to keep all the herbs to one side, then the bombilla is inserted into the mate, still held at an angle. A little cold water should be added to prevent dust from gathering in the bombilla and prepare the yerba for the infusion, preserving any nutrients that might be neutralized by the addition of hot water.
Finally, hot water (less than 150-degrees Fahrenheit) can be added—but not filled to the top! Now it is ready to drink. This is where the ritual part of this process comes in. The same vessel can be refilled nearly 20 times and is meant to be shared. Here are some best practices to follow, courtesy of Francisco Huanaco of Buenos Aires, Argentina:
- The person preparing the yerba mate is known as the “cebador/a” and should be the only person who pours fresh water between tastings.
- The cebador/a should drink the first yerba mate poured.
- The cebador/a should try to avoid dampening all of the leaves with each pour or the drink will lose its flavor too quickly—this is called “lavado.” It is considered disrespectful to pass someone a “mate lavado.” Always pour near the bombilla for the best result.
- If you are offered the yerba mate, you must drink all of the liquid inside and then pass the vessel once again to the cebador/a. Always return the mate to the cebador/a!
- It is okay to add sugar for some extra flavor, but gauge the preferences of your group before doing so. A yerba mate without sugar added is called “amargo,” meaning bitter.
- When you are finished, rinse out the calabash and bombilla with water only, dry with a cloth, and let rest upside down to ensure no water is left inside to mold.
From Ancient Drinking Ritual To Trendy Beverage Ingredient
With a bitter, smokey, and woody flavor, yerba mate has a very distinctive taste that, like coffee, can require adjusting to—but the real draw for consumers is the caffeine. That’s right, there’s a reason why some have referred to the drink as a “productivity hack.”
Boasting an allegedly jitter-free buzz, yerba mate contains about 80mg of caffeine per cup. This amount has been described as a happy medium for consumers looking for a boost, as it contains twice as much caffeine as in black tea, but less than half that of a cup of coffee. You could even call it the Goldilocks of caffeinated beverages!
As a bonus, the beverage is also rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, as well as beneficial plant compounds like quercetin, theobromine and theophylline. Components of this superfood have been known to reduce risk of cancer and heart disease, decrease the accumulation of fat in the body, and improve blood flow. The health benefits abound.
It helps that the qualities of yerba mate are supported by trends favoring experiential, naturally positioned beverages that deliver on both functionality and flavor. This is a driving force behind why yerba mate has become a beverage favorite in recent months—and beverage developers are finding creative ways to innovate with it. As an energy booster, weight loss supplement, focus aid, and source of digestive support, there are many reasons why beverage developers are exploring the utility of yerba mate as a beverage ingredient.
Dozens of brands have popped up on the shelf and some US consumers have even taken to brewing it up the traditional way at home, as yerba mate leaves are made available at grocery stores across the nation. In recent years, yerba mate has made its way into everything from health elixirs to “clean and natural” energy drinks, even alcoholic seltzer. In May 2021, Coca-Cola’s Honest Tea portfolio rolled out a line of organic yerba mate beverages in three flavors—lemon ginger black tea, strawberry pomegranate matcha, and peach mango green tea.
It’s clear that what was once a niche beverage has officially entered the mainstream. As consumers become more educated about yerba mate, new products containing this special ingredient are sure to emerge. Yours could be next.
Do you have an idea for the next tasty, caffeinated drink? Flavorman can help you make it a reality! Get started by filling out this form or giving us a call at (502) 273-5214.