There are only a handful of plants in the world that produce caffeine, and yerba mate is one of them. Along with tea, coffee, cacao, kola (or cola), and guarana, the yerba mate herb is used to produce a caffeinated beverage. While prepared as an infusion to create a tea-like beverage, yerba mate contains no actual tea leaves.
Yerba mate is an herb native to South America and is used to make the national drink of Argentina, Paraguay, Uraguay, and Southern Brazil. In fact, yerba mate is consumed 6 to 1 over coffee in these countries.
So how did yerba mate become so popular in South America and how did it end up in our teacups?
Yerba mate origins
The origins of yerba mate are filled with folklore. Discovered by the indigenous peoples of the forests of Paraguay (the Guarani) and Southern Brazil (the Tupi), it was known as an herb “from the gods” used mostly for physical stamina. The herb was a dietary staple for agriculture-dependent and nomadic and warrior-based lifestyles, depending on the tribe. It was also used for medicinal purposes. Natives believed yerba mate was a gift given to them to sustain life, increase vitality and heal the sick. As a spiritual herb, yerba mate was used for worship and often used for religious and other important tribal ceremonies.
The stimulant properties of the beverage became popular with Argentinian gauchos (or cowboys), who sipped yerba mate for energy during cattle drives or long harvest days. It was also consumed in place of scarce food during periods of drought or famine. This “cowboy coffee” was sipped in the morning and at night around the campfire. A shared gourd of yerba mate was passed around and sipped in fellowship as meals were prepared.
As the Spanish began to colonize the countries across South America, they saw firsthand the health and energy benefits this indigenous beverage had on the people of the land. They took up the habit and quickly spread and popularized the herb as they conquered the continent. Unlike coffee and cocoa, the other South American crops the Europeans cultivated for cash-rich export, yerba mate was not a domesticated species and had to be harvested from wild stands of shade trees. It took centuries for the Europeans to figure out how to turn the plant into a reliable crop. The “secret”, it turned out, was that yerba mate seeds were only germinated when they passed through the digestive tracts of certain native birds.
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