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[Photos: Liz Clayton]

One of South America's most social infusions, Yerba Mate—not technically a tea, but derived instead from the rainforest holly plant Ilex paraguariensis—is a flavorful departure from other steeped drinks.

Though mate's caffeine content is a source of debate—many prefer to position the drink as a healthy alternative to coffee and tea, or as a diet or digestive enhancer—it's widely thought to energize in many of the ways we rely on in those other, unquestionably caffeinated brews.

Its dynamic range of possibility, however, is not up for debate. Whether brewed traditionally in a mate gourd, steeped like tea in a bag or infuser, or even brewed like coffee in a French press, mate can be enjoyed in what seem like infinite ways—and from cultural traditions that don't necessarily require an army of thermometer-toting water-filtering snobbery (not that there's anything wrong with that) to make it enjoyable.

Loose leaf mate can come as predominantly leaves, or can include stems, twigs, or even powdered leaf. It can also come blended with accompanying flavors, such as licorice, mint, citrus, and so on, to temper the earthy, grassy taste of this brew. Its most traditional Argentine preparation will require a little special equipment.

How to Make Mate

032211-143020-tea-yerba-mate-2.jpgYou'll need a special gourd, itself called a mate, and a bombilla, which is a metal (usually silver and brass, or stainless steel) straw with a hollow filtered bottom, from which you will drink the mate. (Both gourd and bombilla can range from practical to decorative, and indeed you can substitute other small bowls or cups for the infusion, but a method of filtering mate's fine leaves and stems will always be required.)

Take your gourd and fill it with leaves, up to about one-third to one-half full. Depending on the composition of your mate—extra-stemmy, or extra-powdery—you may wish to shake the gourd a bit to redistribute the lighter, more powdery leaves to the top, where they will not cause clogging later on.

Next, tilt the gourd until all the mate is leaning against one side wall of the cup, and fill the vacant space with cold water. The leaves will rapidly absorb the cool water, and become prepared for infusion. Insert your bombilla into the empty space at this time, and once the cool water is absorbed, fill the remaining space with hot, but not too hot water. (165-175° F should do.)

Now, assuming you are the host, you begin drinking the mate, and refill with water as needed to pass around the mate gourd to all of your friends. (Since reinfusion is part of both the brewing, and social process, your infusion times can vary depending on taste, need, and experimentation.)

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For the less social, more practically minded, mate can also be prepared using a variety of coffee or tea equipment you may already have on hand (though metal tea infusers can often impart a distracting taste, since mate is traditionally sipped through metal, it is not tremendously blasphemous to go that route). Infusing mate in fillable teabags is also an option, but if you have a French press in the house, go ahead and give that a whirl. The room a French press allows for the leaves to fully infuse and expand, while ensuring powdery and smaller particles are filtered out by its fine sieve, makes it a perfect adaptation to preparing mate. Steep three to five minutes in less-than-boiling water, and enjoy your mate.

You're also not limited to one type of liquid to infuse with mate. In warmer months, you can enjoy a cold water infusion, and if you're craving a sweeter flavored brew, try infusing lemonade, lime juice, pineapple juice, warm milk, or coconut milk with mate. Whatever sounds right to you can probably be poured over your mate leaves. Just don't forget to pass the gourd and share.

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