Choosing Your First Yerba Mate to Try
As a yerba mate newbie, you may find your first mate a little intimidating. From the different styles of yerba mate, what yerba to buy, what bombilla, and cup to use, and how to prepare it, there’s a lot to think about. In this article we’ll break down the process so that you can choose your first yerba mate to try.
Styles of Yerba Mate
Yerba mate comes in many different shapes and sizes. The main mate drinkers are from Argentina, Uruguay, southern Brazil, and Paraguay. Each region has its own way of preparing it.
Argentines drink yerba mate from a traditional gourd, with close-to-boiling water temperature. Argentine drinkers will commonly add herbs or spices to the mate. For example, it’s normal to add ginger, cinnamon, orange peels or herbs (called yuyos) to the hot water, so that the mate takes on a sweeter taste. In addition, Argentines generally serve mate at home from a kettle.
You can spot an Uruguayan yerba mate drinker from a mile away: just look for the thermos tucked in their elbow. Uruguayans drink mate everywhere, including on the street and in public squares. After all, they’re the largest consumer per capita of yerba with 10 kg consumed yearly per person. Uruguayans are also more traditional with their mate and don’t often add herbs or extra flavors. Their mates are also slightly larger than those used by Argentines.
Southern Brazilians, especially those from Rio Grande do Sul, drink a mate infusion called chimarrão. While this style is similar to yerba mate prepared in Argentina and Uruguay - using close-to-boiling water and a gourd mate - there are a handful of differences:
- Ground yerba: The yerba used for a chimarrão is ground to a powder. While a few stems are included, the yerba is typically very fine. You’ll notice that this yerba is much greener than other yerbas.
- Larger mate gourd: The gourd used for chimarrão much larger than a traditional mate. Called a cuia, this gourd is both bigger and has a rounder bowl shape. This means that much more yerba is used per mate.
- Finer bombilla filter: With finer yerba, a different bombilla filter is needed. Typical Brazilian drinkers will have filters with smaller holes so that the bombilla doesn’t get clogged.
In Paraguay, yerba mate is called tereré and prepared with cold or ice water. Sometimes fruit juice is added instead to prepare a sweeter mate; sugar may also be added. Tereré is also distinct because it’s typically consumed from a large horn cup called a guampa instead of a traditional gourd mate.
When you go to make your first mate, it’s a good idea to start with a traditional gourd mate. You can decide whether to use a kettle or a thermos and if you want to add any herbs to the water as well. However, the biggest part of your first mate is the yerba. The yerba you choose will define the flavor and experience of your first yerba mate.
What Yerba to Buy
For mate drinkers, the yerba you use is about as controversial as the soccer team you root for. Long story short: you have to try out different yerbas to know what you like. However, this goes beyond just the brand of yerba you select. Let’s look at some of the qualities of yerba that you should watch out for.
Depending on the region and brand, a typical blend of yerba will look and taste differently. A big part of the yerba taste is whether it has stems (con palos) or no stems (sin palos). What’s the deal with stems?
Basically, the yerba mate plant is harvested for its leaves, dust, and stems. Producers separate these elements and then recombine them in the proportion that they want for the blend.
For yerba with stems, the blend contains these twig-like stems. Since stems dilute the yerba, they make the flavor softer and less bitter. Stems also brew more slowly than leaves and dust, which gives the mate a good balance. They also add nutritional value.
Yerba with stems is preferred in Argentina and Paraguay. It’s great for mate newbies because this yerba is typically less bitter.
On the other hand, yerba without stems has higher leaf and dust content, making it stronger and more bitter. The flavor of this type of yerba also lasts longer.
Yerba without stems is extremely common in Uruguay. It’s also consumed in Brazil. However, many Brazilian varieties have finely grounded yerba with some large stems added.
Compuesta for Herbal Notes
Besides just looking for stems or no stems, you should also look for whether the yerba is compuesta. A compuesta blend means that the yerba has some herbal notes.
For example, many compuesta blends include herbs such as congorosa, alfalfa, and passionflower (mburucuyá). Compuesta is a good option for beginners since it’s typically less bitter than a traditional blend.
Flavor Blends for Unique Taste
In addition, some yerba blends use strong flavors, such as ginger, red tea, baldo, or even cannabis (at least where it’s legal). Typically, a flavor blend has less of the bitter taste and is balanced with the added flavor.
For example, flavor blends with ginger have become increasingly popular and give the mate a prominent flavor. Flavor blends are also newbie-friendly as they don’t have the traditional bitterness.
Other Factors in Flavor
Remember that yerba flavor goes beyond stems or no stems. It’s also more than just having a compuesta blend or a unique added flavor. Yerba gets its taste from the combination of leaf, dust and stem elements, how long the blend was aged, how the leaf was cut and if any smoke or flavors were added during the process. That’s a ton of factors! You’ll need to try out different brands to really get to know different yerbas and which you like best.
When you’re first starting, try a yerba with stems, compuesta yerba or flavored yerba for a less bitter beginning to your mate drinking.
What Bombilla and Cup to Use
While yerba is the main flavor factor, your bombilla (straw) can also influence the experience of drinking mate. When you go to try your first mate, you’ll also want to make sure you have the right bombilla for the yerba mate you plan on drinking.
The material of your bombilla is key. Generally speaking, a metal bombilla made with silver, stainless steel or alpaca will do the trick. These metals are durable and don’t overheat in the mate. You should also make sure the filter is fine enough for the yerba you want to drink. If you need more in-depth on bombillas, check out our guide here.
As for the mate gourd, you have plenty of choices. The most traditional is a round hollowed-out gourd, but you can also choose a ceramic mate if you’re not confident about how to clean a traditional gourd. Start with a medium-sized mate so that you get the hang of adding the yerba. You can always get a larger or smaller mate later, according to your preference.
If you’re overwhelmed by the idea of the gourd, there are also tea bags of yerba mate available (called mate tea), which can be prepared like a regular tea.
Experiment with Yerba Mate
Preparing your first yerba mate can be done in several ways. The traditional way is to use close-to-boiling water in a gourd mate and the yerba of your choice. However, if this flavor is too bitter, you have some options for sweetening or softening the taste:
- Add fruit or herbs to the water.
- Add sugar, brown sugar or honey to the water or mate.
- Use milk instead of water.
At first, you might want to stick to a yerba without stems and then add other elements according to how you find the initial taste.
Now that you know all about the styles of yerba mate, the types of yerba, the options for your bombilla and mate, and different ways of preparing it, you should be ready to make your first yerba mate.