mate drink in argentina

Yerba Mate Drink in Argentina: a healthy cultural symbol

One of the experiences not to be missed during a trip to Argentina is undoubtedly tasting a Mate Drink.

Walking through the streets, the parks of the country, in offices, stores, everywhere you will see people drinking mate and it will only be a matter of time before you are offered one!

In this guide I will explain you every detail and curiosity related to this drink, symbol of Argentine culture.

Table of Contents

What is the yerba mate drink and what countries drink mate?

The yerba mate drink is popular in many South American countries. It is ‘an acquired taste’. And it is currently consumed mainly in Paraguay, Argentina, Uruguay and some cities in southern Brazil.

The dried leaves of the yerba mate tree are used to make this infusion, to which hot water is added.

It is also called “mate” to the container where it is drunk, being the most used the pumpkin one.

To start you need to have this glossary:

  • Mate: the name of the gourd and the drink
  • Bombilla: the metal straw that is used to drink the mate
  • Yerba: the dried leaves of yerba mate tree that comes in half or full kilo bags
  • Lavado: literally ‘washed’, this is when the mate lost its flavor

In Argentina, the yerba mate is a popular drink, yes, but it means much more, it is a source of pride for Argentines, it is an excuse to meet and a custom that is transmitted by family inheritance.

“Shall we drink some mates?”

It is an invitation to chat, to stay, to continue the conversation. Mate represents sharing, it reduces distances between people, it invites to think, to debate, it is the social drink by excellence.

Aside from its unique flavor, you should also know that its use is beneficial for your health. Yerba mate is rich in antioxidants, helps reduce bad cholesterol and triglycerides (obesity) and contains a large amount of minerals and vitamins.

As a last characteristic, it is an energy drink due to its high caffeine content. But it is a caffeine different from that contained in coffee or tea. Its properties prevent the energy drop that occurs after excessive coffee consumed.

Did you notice how many things it represents?

Do not worry, this article will not end without me explaining how to make a good mate, although the definition of “good” will always depend on the drinkers, you will find out.

How was mate born in Argentina?

Mate originated with the traditions of the Guarani Indians who inhabited the area that today makes up Paraguay and parts of Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil.

The Guarani used the leaves of the yerba mate tree as a beverage and also as a currency of exchange with other tribes. For these people, the yerba mate tree was a gift from the gods.

Later, the Spanish conquistadors were the ones who spread the use of this drink in the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata. They noticed that the Guarani had more stamina and energy after drinking this beverage and learned the virtues of yerba mate.

Then, the Jesuits introduced the crop in the Jesuit Guarani missions and thanks to them, yerba mate became popular and commercialized. Such was their influence that the infusion was known at that time as Jesuit tea.

yerba mate worker
A Yerba Mate worker at the Taragüí establishment - MateRojo, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Drinking mate did not distinguish social classes, but the additives included when drinking it and the objects in which it was drunk did. The aristocrats of those times added milk, cinnamon, cream, cloves, to make it more premium. Likewise, the more elaborate (carved in silver) and sumptuous the mate (container) was, the finer it was considered to be.

This is how drinking mate became a deep-rooted tradition in Argentina, which is still maintained today and expands around the world.

Where is yerba mate produced in Argentina?

The province of Misiones, in the extreme northeast of Argentina, is the main producer of yerba mate in the country. It is followed by the northeastern province of Corrientes.

Yerba mate, whose scientific name is Ilex Paraguariensis, is a tree native to the Brazilian rainforest in the state of Paraná, in southern Brazil. It can reach a height of between 12 and 16 meters. To facilitate harvesting, they are cut twice a year to an average height of 2 meters.

It is also the country with the largest area of yerba mate crops. In total 165 thousand hectares. It is followed by Brazil (85 thousand) and Paraguay (35 thousand).

yerba mate in argentina
A Yerba Mate tree in the Buenos Aires Botanical Garden - © Nicholas Tinelli

This makes Argentina the main producer and exporter of yerba mate in the world. It leads in yerba mate exports with an annual average of 35 thousand tons, its main destinations being Syria (78%), Chile (12%), Lebanon and the United States (2%).

How can it be explained that Syria is the largest buyer? The explanation lies in the Syrian immigration to Argentina, which began in the 19th century, and as many relatives remain in the country of origin, they adopt the customs of those who live in Argentina.

Nowadays, an average of 6.4 kg per inhabitant per year is consumed in Argentina and yerba mate is present in more than 90% of homes.

How to prepare and drink mate in Argentina?

Mate is prepared using the leaves of the yerba mate tree. These leaves, which are crushed and packaged, and are commonly called “yerba”, can be bought in any supermarket in the country, in any store, it is always available.

As I told you, the container is also called “Mate” and can be the traditional gourd, or a wooden or cane jar, or even ceramic, metal or plastic. The key is to choose a good container, with a narrow base and wide mouth, and if you ask me, there is no doubt that the gourd one is the best, because of its taste.

The infusion is taken with a straw, a kind of metal straw or sometimes cane, and the water should not be boiled. In fact, if the water boils, it is not suitable for mate. Ideally, it should be between 75 and 85°.

One person prepares the mate, filling it with yerba mate and placing first a little water and then the metal straw inside. Then he continues adding hot water and passes each mate he prepares to the other people. Each person drinks the mate and returns it to the server to refill it with water and continue the circle.

This process continues until the mate is “washed”, which means that it loses its flavor.

What do you drink mate out of?

There are many ways of drinking mate: bitter and without additives, with sugar or sweetener, with dried orange or lemon peels, with herbs, with cold water – it is called tereré -, and more. There are less ways to prepare it, but they are not few. Each one has its own technique and its masters.

The 5 secrets to make a good mate are (check out the video below):

  • Fill the three quarters (3/4) of the mate.
  • Shake it by covering the mouth of the mate with the palm of your hand.
  • Place the mate on its side/oblique, so as to leave all the yerba mate on one side of the container.
  • Add some warm water in the part of the mate where there is less yerba. When the yerba swells, this is where the strew is placed.
  • Pour the water as close as possible to the metal straw to avoid wetting all the yerba. In this way, it preserves its flavor for a longer time since every time you put water in the container the yerba that is dry will feed, releasing the flavor little by little. If we wet all the yerba the mates are washed faster.

3 basic rules that you need to know:

  • Do not move the straw once the mate is started! It is to prevent it from getting clogged and the dry yerba from getting wet, but it is also almost an offense to the person who is brewing the mate!
  • Respect the order of the circle.
  • Don’t say “thank you” when someone gives you the mate. That word is used when you don’t want to drink any more, and everyone know that, in the next round, they will skip you for the mate.

When do you drink mate?

Mate is present throughout the day:

During breakfast, it is a habit to start the day with energy, and before lunch it is a break to calm anxiety or hunger.

During the day, it is a partner for different activities: working, studying, cleaning the house, watching TV/series, reading.

During the snack, it is a moment of relaxation, it begins to close the day. It is a welcome gesture for those who come home from work.

In the evening, mate is present while using the computer or during the family after-dinner conversation.

It's Mate time! - © Nicholas Tinelli

Where to buy mates in Argentina?

As we already said, yerba can be found in supermarkets and many other places where food is sold. In fact, nowadays in Argentina, but more so in Buenos Aires, natural markets have expanded and you can find organic yerbas and mixed with other herbs or “yuyos”.

If you need hot water for your mate, you can buy it at gas stations and local small shops.

As for the container, it is available in many places. If you search online, there are also thousands of options. A good place is the street markets that take place in Buenos Aires, where they sell handmade mates and you can see and choose. The San Telmo Fair on Sundays always has multiple vendors, as the outdoor Plaza Francia Fair, near to the Recoleta Cemetery in Plaza Francia.

The important thing is after buying it, and if it is made of gourd or wood, to know that it must be cured. There are different methods to do it, but whoever sells you the mate will tell you which one is the right one for you. The curing process is done before starting to use it and usually takes a couple of days-

But if you don´t want to drink mate, you can buy it as a souvenir, because some of them incorporate iconic Argentine images such as tango dancers or the flag, so it is a nice decoration too.

Where to drink mate in Buenos Aires?

In Argentina, and specially in Buenos Aires, you can drink a mate in some specific café or tea place. You need to search them.

Mate is so common in the city, but it is not available in all bars, as coffee.

That make you think that it is always better mate with an Argentinean, because the ritual is really lived.

When is the “Mate Day” in Argentina?

The National Mate Day in Argentina is November 30, as established by Law 27,117, which was passed to promote the permanent recognition of Argentine customs.

The date was chosen to commemorate the birth of Andrés Guacurarí y Artigas, a Guaraní leader who was the only indigenous governor in Argentine history. Appointed by José Gervasio Artigas as General Commander of Misiones, Andrés governed between 1815 and 1819 the then Great Province of Misiones, from where he promoted the production and distribution of yerba mate.

November 30 is also the date on which a fair dedicated to this infusion is usually held, the MateAr Fair, in Buenos Aires.

Mate Drink in Argentina: Interesting Facts

Valeria Trapaga is the first and only Argentine mate sommelier specialized in yerba mate tasting.

In 2020 she presented her book “Mate in body and soul”, published by Lariviére,

Valeria gave a very interesting and emotional talk about mate at TED x Rosario in 2012. I invite you to watch it and get excited.

Final Notes

This cultural symbol was strongly impacted by the world pandemic (COVID).

It can no longer be shared among all because it is a means of transmission, but even so, it is still the reason to get together and talk, now each one with his mate, outdoors.

Learn how to make a Mate while travelling with us!

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