South Americans have been enjoying their favorite brewed, caffeinated beverage since long before the first coffee bean landed in north of the Equator. Native to the rainforests in the northern countries of South America, the yerba mate plant has provided indigenous peoples with a jolt of caffeine and energy since the 1500s. It is a hardy plant that matures from a lush shrub into a towering tree and produces leaves that can be harvested, cured, and steeped into a tasty and energizing beverage. While Brazil is the largest producer of processed yerba mate leaves, yerba cultivators can also be found in Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay.
Yerba mate leaves are cured by drying and/or smoking (which imparts a more complex flavor), and then crushed and packaged for sale. Mate drinks, the beverages made from dried yerba mate leaves, are available in a number of preparations. After being steeped in hot water, they may be enjoyed hot or cold, plain or sweetened, pure or flavored; its versatility and popularity mirror that of coffee drinks in the United States or Europe. Plain mate has an earthy and slightly bitter flavor; many prefer the less bitter and spicier flavor of a toasted mate beverage. Drinking mate is a social construct in South America, and people can often be seen gathering in mate shops, where a group of friends will pass and share a communal mate cup. It is common to see individuals toting their personal mate cups as they travel around town.
In addition to its unique flavor, mate has been popular throughout northern South America for centuries because it provides an energy boost thanks to a caffeine measure equivalent to coffee. While mate delivers the same lift as other sources of caffeine, a slightly different caffeine composition makes mate less likely to cause the jittery effects and addictiveness so common with large quantities of coffee. It is also packed with a variety of vitamins. Regular drinkers of yerba mate also claim that the herb increases mental alertness, decreases fatigue, and helps to relieve anxiety. Perhaps thanks to these energizing effects, many mate fans also assert that the beverage aids in weight loss. Certain bioactive compounds in yerba mate have been isolated and studied for their curative properties; preliminary evidence suggests that yerba mate could have a hand in killing colon cancer cells.
While some early research is promising, it is important to remember that yerba mate is a newcomer to the nutrition market in the United States. Continuing study could discover many more health benefits of this South American favorite. In the meantime, it seems like yerba mate continues to gain popularity in the United States for its distinctive flavor, versatility in preparation, and natural energy boosting properties. It is readily available in natural and health food stores across the country, as well as from a wide variety of reputable online distributors. More and more tea and coffee shops are adding mate drinks of all varieties to their menus, and popularity is growing.