South America | Tea & the Unique Origin of Yerba Maté

History & Geography

We have discovered the Camellia sinensis plant in many different places all around the world! But one of the most important factors in growing tea is the climate. South America has a wide range of climates, from tropical rainforests to freezing mountaintops, and there are many areas that can support Camellia sinensis. South America has a very strong history with tea, but not just the plant we are all familiar with. The traditional tea plant is grown in Brazil, Peru, and Argentina, while Yerba maté is a very unique plant that only grows in specific parts of South America. People from all over South America have long traditions of brewing and drinking Yerba maté in a variety of social and cultural situations.  The Yerba maté plant, called Ilex paraguariensis, originated in Paraguay but is now also enjoyed in Argentina, Uruguay, and southern Brazil.  

Production & Types of Tea (Yerba Maté)

The Camellia sinensis plant came from the Portuguese and Spanish colonists that came over from Europe in the 17th century. While the tea trade initially thrived in Brazil and Argentina because of slave labor, once slavery was abolished in 1888, the tea trade collapsed. While the tea industry has been recovering over the years, the flavor of the tea is not as potent as tea grown in other countries. This tea is usually blended in with other teas to make both hot and iced tea.

Yerba maté is cultivated differently from the traditional Camellia sinensis plant. The Ilex paraguariensis plant is evergreen, so it shows leaves during all four seasons. Green-white flowers and small berries also grow on the plant. Both the leaves and small twigs are harvested in order to make Yerba maté. The harvesting process often sees the leaves and twigs being picked by hand since only the most tender stems should be used to make high quality Yerba maté. Everything is then dried in a controlled environment, sometimes over a roaring wood fire. Occasionally, the leaves and twigs are placed in wood like cedar to add even more flavor to the drink.

The best Yerba maté grows under the rainforest canopy so the leaves are not in direct sunlight. By staying in the shade, the leaves and twigs that are harvested are able to retain the maximum amount of flavor and nutrition. Wild Yerba maté trees in the rainforest can only be harvested every two years because of the amount of time the plant takes to develop the leaves. Trees that are cultivated on farms are typically harvested every winter since farmers can control the water and sun exposure.

Methods of Drinking Yerba Maté

Yerba maté is enjoyed in a variety of ways, from a casual drink with friends in a tearoom or café, to a more traditional ritual of consuming the beverage. Cafes and teahouses around the country offer Yerba maté with milk, sugar, pastries, and crackers. The more ritualistic form of consuming Yerba maté, which shares the same name as the drink being consumed, is traditionally performed by a group of people. Some requirements for the ritual include a dried gourd called a maté, a special straw with a filter called bombilla, and hot (but not boiling!) water. The maté is partially filled with leaves and warm water is poured in to begin releasing the flavors. Then, the bombilla is inserted at an angle to keep the leaves out of the straw, and the maté is passed around the circle. The maté and bombilla can be made of many different matérials, like ceramic, wood, silver, stainless steel, and bamboo. Everyone’s maté can also be painted or decorated to make it unique.

The taste of Yerba maté is strongly unique, and more bitter than a typical green, black, or white tea. A comparison is often made to coffee, because of the distinctive flavor and the euphoric, energetic feeling it can provide. In fact, Yerba maté has a reputation of packing more of a caffeine punch than other teas. A typical 8oz cup of coffee contains 120mg of caffeine, while black and green teas typically contain 30 to 50mgs. Yerba maté contains almost double the amount of caffeine in normal tea, clocking in at a buzzing 70mg of caffeine in a typical 8oz cup.

Our journey to discover the origins of tea around the world comes to an end (for now!) in South America. While there is some history with the traditional Camellia sinensis in this diverse continent, a rich tradition of their local tea has been thriving for centuries. Yerba maté is one of the most famous exports for South America. The incredibly unique flavor and rich traditions around the consumption and harvesting of the plant make Yerba maté a truly unique beverage.


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