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If you’re looking for a boost of energy that doesn’t come from an espresso bean, look no further than yerba mate tea.

January 31, 2017

Yerba Mate tastes like a tea and hits you like a coffee — and yet, it’s technically neither. If you’re looking for a boost of energy that doesn’t come from an espresso bean, look no further than this South American super-beverage made of the steeped leaves and twigs of an indigenous plant, which has been providing locals with a natural pick-me-up for centuries.

The drink itself dates back to the pre-Columbian era, when the local Guaraní people in Paraguay discovered and started to aggressively cultivate the Ilex paraguariensis plant (a member of the holly family), dry the leaves and twigs, and drink them in hot water — mainly as a wellness beverage. Once the Spanish colonized Paraguay in the seventeenth century, they too began drinking it, and it became the country’s chief export. Other South American countries like Brazil, Argentina, and Chile grew the crop as well, and even after the arrival of coffee and other kinds of tea in South America, Yerba Mate remained one of the most popular drinks in the area.

Strong, bitter, and vegetal, Yerba Mate has a very distinctive taste that, like coffee, can require adjusting to. “It’s very expressive, like this euphoric experience,” says Ashleigh Parsons, of the Los Angeles hotspot Alma at The Standard, who used to live in Argentina. Depending on how much you consume, she says, “It can feel very trippy. The caffeine in it can really give you this high.”

There’s even a time-honored ritual around the consumption of Yerba Mate that celebrates this sensation — usually in a park, or some kind of outside gathering spot. That ritual is described in the name, Yerba Mate, which translates to “gourd herb,” referring to the standard way of drinking the beverage. The practice requires a mate (or dried gourd), a bombilla, (a special straw for drinking that filters out the tea leaves), and a thermos, for transporting the hot water. During the drinking process, individuals will sit in a circle, and one person (called the cebador) will fill the mate about two-thirds the way full with the leaves, add a little bit of warm water to release the flavors, put the bombilla into the mate at an angle (to ensure the straw doesn’t get plugged up), and finally top it off with hot water (never boiling, as that will burn the leaves). The gourd gets passed around, and everyone takes a sip through the bombilla. (A tip: never use the bombilla to stir, this is considered very impolite!). There are tons of different types of both mates and bombillas, and in South America, each person will usually have his or her own unique one. While mates are, most traditionally, made of actual gourds, they can also be made with ceramic and wood, and painted decoratively. Bombillas, too, can be made with various materials, including silver, stainless steel, and bamboo.

As the gourd gets passed around, it will keep getting refilled with hot water, with each subsequent pour intensifying the taste of the leaves. If bitter isn’t your thing, you can always add sugar or milk to your Yerba Mate — though if you want to drink as the locals do, you’ll take it without any add-ons. As far as food pairings, there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to Yerba Mate, but it’s not uncommon to see pastries or crackers served alongside the drink.   

Of course, this elaborate process isn’t the only way people drink Yerba Mate. Just as we drink our morning coffee, many South Americans will prepare a thermos of Yerba Mate, drinking it throughout the day for a burst of energy.

Still, according to Parsons, the act of passing around the mate in South America is widely considered to be “an art and a conversational piece,” she says. “It’s this communal beverage, and the entire ritual of drinking it is meant to be connective and celebratory.”

Yerba Mate, of course, eventually migrated over to the U.S., and over the last couple of years it has become a popular ingredient in everything from health elixirs to energy drinks — hailed not only as an energy booster, but also as a means for weight loss, concentration, and better digestion. You can also buy the loose leaves at most specialty grocery stores to make the drink at home. And if you want to get the full Yerba Mate experience, Parsons says, you can even order a mate and a bombilla online, gather some friends, and enjoy the beauty of the South American ritual for yourself.