Interested in the popular South American herb, yerba maté? You’ve come to the right place!
Yerba maté is an incredibly useful herb for the modern human. It’s stimulating like coffee but lacks many of the negative side effects inherent to coffee drinking. It also comes chock-full of antioxidant rich compounds that protect the body from the harmful effects of free radicals.
The herb has a unique preparation method that adds a charm to the ritual of drinking yerba maté tea. Armed with a bombilla and gourd of your choosing, you can start drinking your own yerba maté the traditional way at home.
In this article, we’ll touch on everything you need to know about yerba maté. We’ll explore what yerba maté is and why it’s so popular in South America, how to prepare yerba maté yourself, some brands suggestions to get you started, and some examples of situations where you may want to avoid yerba maté.
This is a big topic, so let’s jump straight in.
What is Yerba Maté?
Yerba maté is a tea made from the leaves of a South American tree known as Ilex paraguariensis.
Although yerba maté is technically tea, it shares no relation to green or black tea — which comes from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant from Asia. Yerba maté is actually a species of holly (Aquifoliaceae) — bearing characteristically thick, leathery leaves rich in phytonutrients, caffeine, saponins, and antioxidants.
The yerba maté tree can grow very large — often reaching a height of 15 to 20 meters. This means a single harvest of yerba maté trees can yield substantial amounts of tea.
The leaves of yerba maté are harvested, roasted, and dried before packaged and consumed as an infusion similar to conventional tea.
The word yerba refers to the herb, while maté is the Spanish name for the gourd it’s traditionally brewed in.
History of Yerba Maté: South American Origins
Yerba maté is the national drink of both Uruguay and Argentina — two countries with a rich history of yerba maté drinking.
Traces of yerba maté leaves have been reportedly found in Incan tombs — suggesting the herb was at the very least used by Incan royalty — if not the entire population.
The earliest information we have on how yerba maté was traditionally used comes from the Guarani tribe of Paraguay and Argentina. It was this tribe that first introduced yerba maté to the early Spanish settlers — eventually leading to the widespread popularity of the herb today.
By the early 17th century, yerba maté became the primary export in parts of Paraguay and Argentina — driving the local economy. The only problem was that the entire industry relied on wild harvesting plants, which were large trees often located in remote, hard to reach areas.
It was nearly impossible to establish plantations of yerba maté at the time because the tough seed coat needed to be swallowed and partially dissolved by birds before it would germinate. Most people in the region were unable to establish reliable yerba maté farms.
The Jesuits discovered a method of breaking down the seed coat by soaking the seeds until a thick lather was released. The seeds were then dried and planted. This advantage allowed the Jesuits to dominate the yerba maté supply for many years — which they used to support their missions.
Now yerba maté is popular around the South American continent — you can even find maté bars as abundant as coffee shops in some regions.
What Are The Benefits of Yerba Maté?
The benefits of this herb are very similar to that of coffee or tea. It’s popular in the morning to help users feel more alert and energized or to assist work or study effort. Yerba maté is also drank along with friends and family while socializing.
There are also many people who simply drink yerba maté for the ritual and unique herbal flavor.
In terms of health, there are a few reasons why someone would choose to drink maté.
For starters, the antioxidant rich profile of yerba maté gives it potent cardioprotective and neuroprotective benefits.
Antioxidants are responsible for many medicinal plant species, including yerba maté, for protecting the body from the effects of harmful free radicals. These free radical compounds are produced naturally as a byproduct of cellular activity and exposure to toxic compounds in the environment. Free radicals are especially damaging to the sensitive tissues of the cardiovascular system, kidneys, and neurological system.
Yerba maté also contains anti-inflammatory saponins and a class of xanthine alkaloids (including caffeine) that activate and tone the cardiovascular, renal (kidneys), and respiratory systems.
These alkaloids also stimulate the burning of fat — making yerba maté a popular weight loss supportive.
The Benefits of Yerba Mate Include:
- Increases both mental and physical energy levels
- Supports the burning of fat and weight loss
- Protects and tones the cardiovascular system
- Supports cognitive function while working or studying
- Protects and tones the kidneys
- Reduces appetite to support weight loss
- May reduce symptoms of diabetes
The Benefits of Yerba Maté Compound Over Time
Many experts agree that drinking yerba maté tea on a regular basis tends to offer better long-term health benefits over single doses. For example, yerba maté can cause a temporary rise in blood pressure in people who don’t drink it regularly but offers a long-term reduction in blood pressure over time.
High blood pressure is one of the leading causes of heart disease.
There are other benefits of yerba maté that compound with long-term use as well — such as the neuroprotective (brain) and renoprotective (kidney) effects.
What Are The Active Ingredients in Yerba Maté?
There are three main types of compounds in yerba maté that provide the bulk of its effects on the human body:
- Xanthine Alkaloids
Let’s cover each one in closer detail.
1. Xanthine Alkaloids (Purine Alkaloids)
There are three main alkaloids in yerba maté that are members of the xanthine class of alkaloids — caffeine, theobromine, and theophylline.
All of these xanthine alkaloids have stimulating effects on the body.
Caffeine, in particular, works by inhibiting a compound in the brain called adenosine — which builds up naturally throughout the day. As adenosine levels rise, it causes a delay in the electrical transmission of nerve cells — ultimately reducing brain activity and causing us to feel sleepy. Caffeine not only inhibits this molecule, it actively removes adenosine from the receptors — thus inhibiting sleepiness.
All xanthine alkaloids in yerba maté also stimulate regions of the adrenergic system — which is responsible for the fight or flight response. Activating the fight or flight response is what causes the rise in heart rate, blood pressure, and energy levels.
Theobromine is the main alkaloid in chocolate. It’s less stimulating than caffeine and tends to balance the effects of caffeine on the body. It’s most likely that the improved stimulating effect profile of yerba maté compared to other sources of caffeine are due to the higher ratio of theobromine to caffeine.
Some reports suggest that yerba maté contains a unique xanthine alkaloid referred to as mateine — however, this isn’t the case. Caffeine and theobromine are bound to tannins in the plant material and is released during the roasting process (coffee, tea, chocolate, and yerba maté all go through a roasting or heating process to activate the xanthine alkaloids). The mateine early researchers first reported is actually the bound version of caffeine and theobromine.
The caffeine content in yerba maté is between 0.7 and 2 percent (dry weight). To compare, coffee contains around 1 to 2.5 percent caffeine and chocolate closer to 0.25 percent.
Yerba maté is especially rich in another class of compounds called polyphenols — which are found throughout the plant kingdom. Polyphenols have a wide range of health benefits on the body — such as fighting free-radical damage and reducing inflammation.
The polyphenol content is highest in the fresh plant. As the leaves are subject to drying, heating, and storage, the polyphenols naturally degrade .
With that said, the polyphenol and antioxidant profile of the final product of yerba maté tea remain exceptionally high.
Yerba maté contains about half a dozen key polyphenols, each with slightly different benefits:
- Caffeic acid
- Chlorogenic Acid
- Gallic Acid
A saponin is a sugar molecule bound to a steroid or triterpene molecule. These compounds have a water-loving (hydrophilic) end, and a fat-loving (lipophilic) end — which allows them to emulsify (mix) fatty substances with water — just like soap. When you make a cup of high-quality mate you’ll notice a froth forms at the top — this is the result of the rich saponin content.
Saponins are found throughout the plant kingdom and come in many different forms. The effects produced by saponins can vary substantially depending on the compound. Some saponins, such as those found in soapwort are highly toxic, while others, like the saponins found in yerba maté, have powerful health benefits.
Many highly-regarded medicinal plant species owe their effects to the rich saponin content — such as ginseng or gynostemma.
One study found that a saponin extract of yerba maté has potent anti-inflammatory benefits . Although there have been studies investigating the saponin content of yerba maté, more research is needed to fully understand the extent of yerba maté-derived saponin benefits.
How to Make Yerba Maté Tea The Traditional Way
You can brew yerba maté just like any other tea — in a teapot or french press — however, this tea has a unique method of preparation using a specialized straw called a bombilla and a gourd.
What You’ll Need: Yerba Maté Tools
1. Yerba Mate Gourd
The gourd is the vessel used to mix the yerba maté with hot water. It acts as a bowl or cup for users to drink their tea from.
Traditionally, these gourds were made from a hollowed-out, dried calabash gourds. Today, you can buy gourds made in near infinite array of sizes, materials, and shapes. Some popular materials for yerba maté gourds include wood, ceramic, metal, glass, and plastic.
The bombilla is the name for the unique straw used to drink yerba maté from the gourd. It consists of a tube with a filter on the end that goes in the tea to avoid sucking up any leaves.
Traditional bombillas were made from a hollowed-out piece of bamboo with holes cut in the end to act as a filter.
Now, most bombillas are made from metal because they last longer and do a better job of filtering out the tea leaves without becoming clogged. You can find bombillas in a wide range of unique designs and materials.
3. Thermos or Other Hot Water Source
When drinking yerba maté the traditional way, it’s necessary to have a ready supply of hot water to refill the gourd when it becomes empty. Each time the gourd is filled with hot water it’s referred to as a wash.
You can usually get about 20 washes from a single set of leaves.
Yerba Mate Preparation Step-By-Step
Step 1: Boil Your Water
The first step is to prepare the water. You’ll want to bring the water to around 80 C (175 F) — which is the point where bubbles are beginning to form in the kettle, but the water hasn’t quite reached a full boil yet.
Once the water is ready, add it to your thermos.
You’ll also need to have some room temperature water on hand for the first wash (more on this in step 3).
Step 2: Prepare The Gourd
Now we need to prepare the yerba maté leaf in the gourd.
Fill the gourd about halfway with yerba maté leaves.
Next, tilt the gourd at an angle so the maté leaves are at an angle in the gourd. This is going to make it easier to add the bombilla in the next step and keeps some of the yerba maté above the water line while you drink. It also creates what’s referred to as a water hole where the water can be added for each consecutive wash.
Step 3: Add a Cold Water Wash
This step is optional but highly recommended.
The first wash should use room temperature water to allow the yerba maté to rehydrate (called the dummy water). Adding hot water right away has a tendency to damage the flavor profile of the maté, making it more bitter and can damage the antioxidant profile of the tea.
Allow the dummy water to absorb into the maté for a minute or so before moving on to the next step.
Step 4: Fill The Mate With Hot Water & Add the Bombilla
After you’ve let the maté absorb the dummy water you can add your first wash of hot water from the thermos. Fill the water so it’s just below the top of the maté so some of it remains dry.
Now you need to add your bombilla to the gourd by sliding it into the water hole and into the maté at the bottom.
Once the bombilla is in place, you may need to add just a little bit more water to reach the water line.
Step 5: Drink & Repeat!
Your maté is now ready to drink!
Drink by sipping the maté through the bombilla like a straw. When the water runs out, simply fill it back up to the water line with the water from your thermos.
You can usually get about 20 washes (refills) from a single gourd of yerba maté.
Other Ways to Make Yerba Maté
Does the traditional method seem to too involved? Don’t have a bombilla or gourd?
Don’t sweat it, there’s more than one way to prepare yerba maté.
Teabags are one of the simplest ways of preparing yerba maté, but it lacks the strength of a traditional brew. You can buy yerba maté in commercially-filled tea bags, or fill your own using filter bags.
Simply add hot water, and wait 10–20 minutes for the yerba maté to thoroughly diffuse into the water.
If you don’t like the taste of yerba maté on its own, you may be interested in trying a yerba maté tea bag mixed with other herbs and fruits — such as this mix containing lemon myrtle and green tea.
2. French Press
If you want to produce a strong brew similar to the traditional method, but don’t have a gourd or bombilla — the french press is your best bet. This is also a great way to make a large batch of yerba maté to serve friends. You can also place the press in the fridge for chilled maté (more on this in point number 4).
You’ll want to add around 4 grams (2 tablespoons) for every 500 mL of water. If this is too strong for you, feel free to add less yerba maté.
You can also make yerba maté just like any other tea using your teapot at home. The only real difference when brewing yerba maté compared to tea is that you should use about twice as much yerba as you normally would for tea, and let the leaves steep much longer.
4. Chilled Yerba Maté
Chilled yerba maté is especially popular in hot climates or in the summer. The name for chilled maté in South America is Tereré.
To make chilled maté, brew a large batch of maté and chill in the fridge overnight. A good way to do this is to use a french press or place the yerba maté in tea bags.
When you’re ready to drink, simply strain the maté or remove the teabag. Add honey or fruits to sweeten and enjoy. We like adding slices of grapefruit, oranges, or lemon for flavor.
Yerba Maté Side Effects & Safety
Yerba maté is widely considered a safe herb and is consumed on a massive scale around the world each day.
With that said, there are some things to keep in mind if using yerba maté for the first time.
With caffeine being one of the primary active ingredients in yerba maté, the same rules apply for yerba drinkers as other sources of caffeine. If you’re sensitive to the compound, it’s recommended you start with a very small amount of yerba maté first to see how it affects you.
Many people find they can drink maté without experiencing the same anxious or jittery side effects of coffee — but yerba maté is not for everyone. Some people still find the caffeine to cause unwanted side effects, even in small amounts.
Yerba maté may negatively affect your ability to sleep — especially if taken too soon before bed time. We suggest you avoid using yerba maté at least 6 hours before your intended bedtime in order to avoid difficulty falling asleep.
Yerba maté can cause blood pressure to rise after drinking, especially in people who don’t regularly consume caffeine. If you suffer from heart disease or high blood pressure, you should first speak with your doctor before drinking yerba maté. This is also recommended for anybody taking prescription drugs. The compounds in yerba maté may negatively interact with your medications.
Popular Yerba Maté Brands
There are many different brands currently selling yerba maté around the world — most of which come from South America.
Yerba maté drinkers tend to have strong brand loyalty — sticking to just one brand of yerba maté for long periods of time.
Although there’s a good reason for doing this — taking from the old adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” — we encourage you to explore different yerba maté brands. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at the extent of flavor profiles and qualities of different yerba maté.
Just like green or black tea, yerba maté has many subtle differences in flavor and effects depending on where the plants were grown and how they were harvested and processed. Some brands even offer blends containing different herbs and ingredients to affect the overall flavor of the final brew.
Some of the Most Popular Yerba Maté Brands Include:
- Las Marias
- Cruz de Malta
- Clean Cause
- Nobleza Gaucha
- Circle of Drink
- La Selva
Further Reading: Yerba Maté User Guides
Yerba maté is an incredibly complex plant. There’s a lot to be discussed about incorporating this herb into your daily life. By reading through this post you’re only just getting started.
Learn more about particular topics of yerba maté by checking out the yerba maté monograph posted on The Sunlight Experiment.
We also invite you to sign up to our newsletter below to stay updated about further developments with yerbaguides.com. We’ll be launching new content discussing any and all topics related to yerba maté each month. We’re just getting started.
Scientific Citings For This Article
- Valerga, J., Reta, M., & Lanari, M. C. (2012). Polyphenol input to the antioxidant activity of yerba maté (Ilex paraguariensis) extracts. LWT-Food Science and Technology, 45(1), 28-35.
- Puangpraphant, S., & de Mejia, E. G. (2009). Saponins in yerba maté tea (Ilex paraguariensis A. St.-Hil) and quercetin synergistically inhibit iNOS and COX-2 in lipopolysaccharide-induced macrophages through NFκB pathways. Journal of agricultural and food chemistry, 57(19), 8873-8883.
- Saracoglu, I., Mutsuga, M., & Ogihara, Y. (1996). Triterpene saponins from tetrapanax papyriferum K. Koch. Chemical and pharmaceutical bulletin, 44(11), 2107-2110.