What You Didn't Know About Yerba Mate

You might have seen them around: the cool kids, clutching that weird contraption that seems like a giant pipe of some sort, only it's actually a sort of glass with an intricate pipe that they use to sip a liquid of some sort. Odd as it may seem to the Stateside eye, UCSD Guardian notes that the practice of drinking yerba mate has started to gain a global foothold in recent years – and while this classic South American tea drink might initially seem odd, it's actually no stranger than, say, chai or guarana, and pretty healthy to boot.

Yerba mate might initially seem daunting thanks to the very specific way it's usually enjoyed, but there's no reason to worry. The drink is actually pretty easy to prepare and enjoy, and far less peculiar than you might think – at least if you take a moment to learn about it beforehand. With this in mind, here's a handy guide to the things you may not have known about yerba mate. 

It's mate without an accent, mate

Yerba mate is, essentially, a brew made from dried Ilex paraguariensis leaves, and according to Encyclopedia Britannicait was a staple of the Guaraní people's diet for a long time before Jesuit missionaries developed a taste for the stuff and started farming it. Today, you'll find it in many South American countries – along with the Middle East countries Lebanon and Syria, which Inside Arabia tells us picked up the habit during the Ottoman Empire's travels to South America and came to enjoy it so much that Syria is the biggest mate exporter in the world. 

Chances are, you'll see yerba mate's name written in a number of different ways, including plain "mate," or even "maté" with an accent. However, if you ever come up with the latter, it's worth remembering that the "é" is there simply to remind you that it's not an English word, and shouldn't be pronounced as such. In fact, if you head to a cafe in a Spanish-speaking country and, unsure of the pronunciation, write down that you'd like some "maté," don't be surprised if you get some pretty strange looks from the barista. After all, you just showed them a piece of paper that says you've killed someone.

The truth about the yerba mate cup and straw

The peculiar straw-and-vessel contraption used to drink yerba mate might seem like deliberately wacky hipster nonsense, but as Food & Wine tells us, it's a traditional, highly optimized delivery system for this particular drink. That being said, you don't need any specialist equipment to enjoy yerba mate. The only major trick to keep in mind while making it is that the tea leaves burn if you use boiling-hot water – so, like many folks in South America, you can totally take the informal way and make a thermos of the stuff for quick and easy consumption on the go. Per Healthlineyou can even easily drink it cold, should you so desire.

However, the "official" way to maximize your yerba mate experience is to enjoy it with a sieve straw called bombilla, from a mate - literally the "gourd," which can be wood, metal or, most traditionally, an actual dried gourd. The mate is first filled with a helping of dried yerba mate, then with hot water, and the end result's sipped through the bombilla to keep the leaves out of your mouth. As Circle of Drink notes, there's plenty of room for customization, here. In fact, there are so many different bombilla varieties that you might want to read up on the subject before deciding which one seems like the best fit.

The health benefits and risks of yerba mate

So, is yerba mate actually good for you? According to Healthlinethe answer is (mostly) a resounding "yes." The drink contains an astounding amount of antioxidants and stimulants, as well as plenty of saponins, which can help lower cholesterol. Many of the beneficial nutrients in yerba mate are also present in coffee and tea, but research and user reports indicate that the sheer sum of yerba mate's health benefits might just mop the floor with its more famous cousins. 

Reportedly, the drink brings just about every health benefit to the table, from helping you lose weight to improving your performance level and cardiovascular health. It also has trace amounts of the vast majority of minerals, vitamins, and essential amino acids your body needs. From your average office worker's point of view, a particularly nice thing is that yerba mate's said to give you a pretty decent caffeine fix without the coffee jitters.    

However, it must be stated that a lot of the drink's health benefits are still in the "more research needed" stage, and its actual, factual effects and benefits are often unverified. What's more, people who drink yerba mate regularly may run an increased risk for some types of cancer, so as with most things, moderation would quite likely be the key here. 

There are several types of yerba mate

Beverages are like icebergs. When you start drinking coffee – or tea, or beer, or virtually any popular drink with a robust history – it's easy to think that one cup of the stuff is like any other cup of the stuff. Then, you peer under the surface, and find a huge history and a vast array of types and forms, from espresso to Kopi Luwak. Such is the case with yerba mate, as well.   

There's a wealth of different varieties of yerba mate, so if you're looking for a new tasting hobby, you're not running out of varieties in a hurry. Yerba Mate Lab lists four distinct versions of the stuff – Paraguayan, Uruguayan, and Argentine, as well as the Brazilian Erva Mate - with vast differences in taste and structure. Yerba Love adds the relatively mild North American yerba mate in the mix, and notes that the types have tons of different cuts, aging, and other prep methods ... and that's before you get into the world of smoked, infused, and flavored varieties of yerba mate. Oh, and as Yerba Matero notes, there's also the world of Middle Eastern yerba mate tradition, which comes with its own customs, such as cleaning the bombilla with a slice of lemon.  

Digging even deeper, you don't even need to go full yerba to get that mate fix. Mate-infused soft drinks like Club-Mate, a cult beverage in Europe, are also available in select locations.  

Famous people are way into yerba mate

It's probably fair to say that one of the reasons yerba mate's profile has increased dramatically in recent years is the fact that several famous folks seem to be all about this drink. Dedicated sites like Mate MundoPlanet Yerba Mateand Native Leaf have listed an impressive number of famous folks as yerba mate enthusiasts, often complete with pictorial evidence. Celebrity advocates of the refreshing drink include some pretty out-there names, like famed horror writer Stephen King and Metallica frontman James Hetfield. Actors like Viggo Mortensen, Zoe Saldana, and Kevin Bacon also reportedly indulge in the occasional gourd of hot mate, and even President Barack Obama has been known to sip on the stuff. 

Two particular walks of life are currently particularly associated with the drink, thanks to the prevalence of Argentine people on their forefront. The current head of the Catholic Church, the Argentine Pope Francis, is a massive fan of yerba mate, to the point that the Catholic News Agency has called it his favorite drink. On the less ecclesiastical side of things, there's association football. Argentine soccer superstars like Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez have been known to enjoy their yerba mate, and The Sun has noted that the caffeine-rich drink has been gaining a foothold in other locker rooms, as well.