By Rachael Funk
Yerba Mate is a bitter, earthy beverage known to many as Argentina’s national drink. Though not actually tea, it is said to have similar health benefits with the added perk of a higher caffeine content. While brewing yourself a cup on your own is perfectly acceptable, a significant part of South American culture is to share Yerba Mate among friends. Thanks to its reported advantages, the beverage has gained popularity around the world, especially in the United States.
Since throwing a teabag into a microwaved cup of water to sip alone at your desk isn’t exactly the most exciting way to capture the spirit of Yerba Mate, here is a step-by-step guide to help you enjoy the rich tradition of this South American institution.
Step 1: Gather your materials
Obtain a gourd and a bombilla. Wait, don't leave! It’s worth it! Though traditionally brewed and sipped from a hollow calabash gourd, you can probably skip the steps of planting, growing, harvesting, hollowing, and curing your own (I mean, unless you’re really into it) and just buy a gourd set online. It’s perfectly fine - there are no cable cooking show hosts here to judge you.
The bombilla is very important. This is the filtered straw that will prevent you from sucking up a mouthful of soggy Yerba Mate leaves in front of your friends, so don’t skip it. A mug can be substituted for the gourd if you’re not all-in on that one, but there’s not really a compromise for the bombilla. Options are endless for gourdgeous (see what I did there?) gourds and bombillas, so explore a little! While you’re at it, also get some loose leaf Yerba Mate.
Step 2: Gather your friends
This is, after all, a social event. Who cares if you’ve never done this before? They love you, you love them, why not share a bonding moment while you all figure this out together?
Step 3: Prepare the leaves
Add enough loose herb into the gourd to fill it just past halfway. Cover the gourd with your hand and turn it upside down. You might lose a sprinkling of leaves doing this, so be careful where you flip. Remember when your sibling used to shake the cereal box so all the marshmallows rose to the top of the bag and left you with the heavier, boring cereal at the bottom? This is what you’re doing with the leaves. It’ll help lower your chances of getting the powdery stuff stuck in your straw. Give it a few upside-down bounces so the smaller leaves move into position.
Before removing your hand from the top of the gourd, turn it on its side and lightly shake it back and forth a few times, Etch-A-Sketch style. This will move any stems to help with filtration. Carefully return the gourd to an upright position so the herbs are stacked tall against one side of the cup and you have a clear space to insert the bombilla on the other.
Step 3: Add water
No pressure or anything, but this is the make-or-break step in preparation. As with tea, Yerba Mate leaves are sensitive and can be damaged. Damaged leaves mean an unpleasantly bitter drink, so it’s important to be tender and attentive during this process.
To prepare the leaves, first pour some cool water into the gourd. A good way to do this is to aim low at the straw – don’t pour directly onto the leaning pile! The cool water will dampen the leaves, which helps protect them from the shock of hot water later. This also "wakes up" the Yerba Mate. Pour slowly and let the herb absorb the water. Add just enough to moisten most of the leaves, but keep the top of the pile dry. Once the leaves are damp, pack down the pile toward the side of the cup to help it keep its shape. A few gentle taps should do it – don’t press hard enough to squeeze out the water.
Once your leaves are prepped, packed, and looking cute, go ahead and add the hot water. Remember the leaves are sensitive, so avoid boiling water! The right water temperature for Yerba Mate lands somewhere between 160 – 180 degrees Fahrenheit. If your water is too hot, bam! Terrible mate. Aim for the bombilla again as you slowly pour in the hot water.
Step 4: Kiss it, drink it, love it
Kissing it isn’t actually a thing, some people just really love Yerba Mate. If you don’t like the natural bitterness, you can add some zip to it with mint, sage, lemon, licorice root, or just sweeten with honey or sugar. Once it’s gone, you can also continue to refill your gourd with hot water to brew the leaves several more times. Once bubbles stop forming on top of the water, you’ll know your leaves have given their all.