Story by Hannah Harris

Photo by Mary Jane Shulte

Video by Christina Belasco

[vimeo id=”83721059″ width=”620″ height=”360″]

Today’s world moves fast. For many, it seems impossible to keep up with everyday life without the aid of energy drinks, sugary pastries, or coffee in the morning. Though these provide a burst of vigor and seem harmless, side effects such as an upset stomach, shakiness, and a post-caffeine crash make people reconsider their choice of guzzling down caffeinated beverages.

Yerba mate, an energy providing beverage similar to tea, has grown in popularity in the United States because of its health benefits.  Individuals are trading carbonated beverages full of empty calories and artificial ingredients, for more nutritional beverages with a variety of natural flavors. Celebrities such as Madonna, Alicia Silverstone, Matt Dillon, and Moby—who sells it at his New York City café, Teany—have promoted the health benefits of mate, contributing to the current trend.

“We’re making a difference, one mate at a time,” says Santiago Casanueva, founder and co-owner of Top Leaf Yerba Mate in Bend, Oregon.

Casanueva explains that mate’s nature, unlike coffee, is to keep the body going without crashing later. There are no jitters or sense of anxiety. Instead, drinkers benefit from mate’s alkalinity, which helps balance and maintain the body’s natural PH level, a measure of acidity. The body doesn’t recognize drinks like soda and coffee, says Casanueva, because they are too acidic. But mate’s 24 vitamins and 15 amino acids contribute to the body’s well-being as well as providing energy necessary to get through a long day.

“When you drink mate, 100 percent of its benefits your body recognizes,” says Casanueva. “The only other beverage like that is water.”

Yerba mate is native to eastern Paraguay and is a member of the holly plant species. For the best possible harvest, the plant needs at least four years to grow. Harvesters first snip leaves and supple branches by hand, creating piles to be dried and processed. Beginning the next day, the sapecado process starts by dehydrating the freshly cut yerba through the aid of fire. This is done to prevent the plant’s natural rusting and fermentation process.

The second step, secado, is a smoking process—the dehydrated leaves are toasted through a source of indirect heat, such coals buried underground. Afterward, the leaves are crushed, put into bags, and labeled with the date and original location, a process called canchada. Thirdly is the process referred to as beneficio, meaning benefit, where the mate is left to age for at least six months. Through specialized machinery, the mature mate is then filtered to remove remaining twigs, leaves, and other debris. Depending on personal preference, mate can contain more or less debris—similar to those who like their orange juice with more or less pulp.

Originally from Brazil, Raquel Deboni is an American English Institute student at the University of Oregon who is familiar with drinking mate. She explains that it’s common for an individual to drink mate multiple times a day with friends and family. Depending on the region, the temperature of water used to make the tea varies. Deboni says that those who live in southern Brazil brew mate with hot water as opposed to drinkers in central Brazil who use cold water. When drinking mate with others, as a matter of courtesy, the one who makes the mate is the first to drink since the first sip is the most bitter.

As Deboni sits on the first floor of Pacific Hall at the University of Oregon drinking mate with a couple of her friends, what’s being enjoyed is not so much the mate, but instead sharing the experience with others. The mate is passed around the circle until the water is gone, and the last drinker makes a slurping sound. Though some people may find the sound annoying, in this environment, it’s seen as a sign of respect—like saying the mate was delicious.

“We pass the mate in a circle to the right with our right hand because it’s a sign of respect and you hope good things will happen to that person,” says Deboni.

Deboni refills the gourd, a custom cup made from the squash-like vegetable after it’s been dried and carved, and carefully pouring loose-leaf mate into one side. When placing the bombilla—a mate drinking straw made from cane or metal—into the gourd, Deboni is careful to place the bombilla on the opposite side of the mate, against the wall of the gourd. The strainer-like end of the bombilla is placed at the bottom to prevent chunks of mate from slipping through and ending up between the drinker’s teeth, while the opposite end has a similar shape to a straw that’s been chewed. Hot water can be added to the empty side of the gourd, which is most easily done with a teakettle.  Deboni says that although it may be tempting, it’s important to resist the urge of stirring the bombilla around the gourd, because no one wants a mouthful of mate leaves.

The porous nature of the gourd allows it to retain flavors. For example, if honey or agave nectar were added in the first batch of mate, the gourd would preserve some of that flavor in the next batch. Deboni encourages mate drinkers to use water, not soap, when cleaning the gourd, or your friends won’t want to drink with you next time.

Mate drinking in Brazil is a tradition similar to tea and coffee drinking rituals in the US, where hot beverages are offered as a sign of hospitality. In the United States, however, it’s not as common to carry around loose-leaf mate, a bombilla, and a gourd. When people see loose-leaf mate before water is added to it, Deboni says it’s often mistaken for drugs—loose-leaf mate looks similar to ground cannabis.

In Eugene, Oregon, yerba mate is sold in local shops like The Kiva, Townshend’s Tea, and Sundance Natural Foods. Brett Schurbon is an employee at The Kiva, one of several grocery stores in Eugene that sells loose-leaf mate. He explains that the quality of the drink has become cleaner and crisper compared to when first being sold. The Kiva sells a variety of mate in loose-leaf and teabag form: Unsmoked Green Energy, Nativa Yerba, Mate Chocolatte and Pure Empower Mint. In the chilled section, flavors include: Citrus Terere, Unsweetened Terere, Traditional, Pure Body, Raspberry Pomegranate Terere, and Mint Terere.

Despite yerba mate’s many health benefits, the biggest draw is the social aspect. Whether drinking with complete strangers, friends, or family, sitting in a circle together, passing around a warm, health-infused beverage provides one with a sense of intimacy. Casanueva explains that bonding through mate reveals the true sense of intimacy, “Into me, you see.”