The Crop of the Day

Mate, Ilex paraguariensis

© Paul Gepts 2002

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Sources of information


  • MATÉ is also called YERBA MATÉ, PARAGUAY TEA, or BRAZILIAN TEA. It is a tealike beverage, popular in Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and southern Brazil.
  • Other names: chá-dos-jesuitas (Jesuit tea), chá-das-missões (Mission tea), congonha, congonha-das-missões, erva-de-são-bartolomeu (Saint Barthelemy herb), orelha-de-burro (donkey's ear), chá-do-paraná (Paraná tea), etc.
  • It is brewed from the dried leaves and stemlets of the perennial tree Ilex paraguariensis.
  • The name "mate" derives from the quichua word "matí" that names the gourd (Lagenaria vulgaris) that is used to drink the infusion.
  • It is a stimulating drink, greenish in colour, containing caffeine and tannin, and is less astringent than tea.

Mate, the plant

  • Holly family (Aquifoliaceae), related to holly
  • Grows between the parallels 10° and 30° (South) in the Paraná and Paraguay rivers basins at altitudes varying from 500 to 1,000 meters
  • Tropical or subtropical plant, needing mild climate, with no dry season, and 15º to 17-21ºC average temperatures and up to 1500 mm of annual rain.
  • In the wild, the plant needs about 25 years to develop completely, reaching in that case a height of up to 15 meters (more often 7 m).

  • The leaves are alternated, elliptical or oval, with the border slightly serrated.
  • It flowers between the months of October and December.
  • The flowers are small, polygamous, dioecious, with calyx and corolla in a tetrameric disposition.The fruit resembles a pepper berry.Among several varieties, there are three that are the most important: "angustifolia", "longifolia" and "latifolia".

Mate, its consumption

  • Mate has a characteristic mature flavor which is somewhat sweet, sour, withered leaf-like, similar to that obtained from tea (Camellia sinensis). Of the 196 volatile chemical compounds found in yerba mate, 144 are also found in tea. The infusions of Ilex paraguarensis are less astringent than those made of tea.
  • It is used in popular medicine and employed in commercial herbal preparations as a stimulant to the central nervous system, a diuretic, and an antirheumatic.
  • Caffeine: 1-1.5 % ; Tannins: 7-11 %
  • On average, 300,000 tons of mate are produced each year.
  • To prepare the mate infusion (called "mate" itself):
    • the dried minced leaves of the yerba mate are placed inside a gourd called "mate" too. This is usually the hard shell from a local fruit but it can also be any suitable metal, glass or wood recipient, although purists will object to the latter types!
    • hot water (approx. 70 C) is added (this is called "cebar el mate")
    • the infusion is sucked through a metal pipe called "bombilla", which has a strainer at its lower end to prevent the minced leaves from reaching the mouth.
Elaborate mate cup

How to prepare a good mate

  • Fill in the gourd up to 3/4 of its volume with "Yerba Mate".
  • Close the top of the gourd with your hand and rotate it to an horizontal position. Or: Put your hand or a piece of paper on the mate's "mouth" and shake it gently upside-down. This is to force the smallest yerba particles (that are like a dust) to the top of the mate, in this way it is less likely that the bombilla tiny holes will get blocked by them.
  • Rise it up slowly adding warm water (140ºF) enough to fix the yerba in an inclined position. Let it rest for about 3 minutes.
  • Close the top of the straw with your thumb and put it inside the gourd with the flat part in its bottom supporting the straw against the border of the gourd (not over the yerba).
  • Now you are ready to start drinking your "chimarrão" (Brazil) or "mate" (Spanish speaking countries). Add hot water (178ºF) in the empty space near the straw up to the top of the gourd (do not cover completely the yerba).
  • Take it till the water has finished then fill it again and so on. Do not move the straw anymore and use the same yerba until you note it has lost its taste.

Some guaraní words related to mate

  • Barbacuá: from mbarambacuá = ma (pile) + ra (euphonic) + mbacuá (toasted or roasted thing)
  • Caä: yerba mate ; Caá-guará: mate drinker ; Caá-i-guá: mate gourd (literally: container of the water of yerba mate) ; Caá-u-ei: thirst of mate
  • Mboroviré: yerba mate slightly "canchada" (dessicated and broken)
  • Sapeca, sambeca or sapeá: pocá, peá or mbecá (to open) + za or sá (eye) = to open the globules or vesicles of the yerba mate by the heating process
  • Ticuá cá ay: "cebar el mate" (literally: to throw water in the hole)