India has its chai. East Asia has its green tea. South Africa has its rooibos. But the latest and greatest entrant on the tea scene might be maté, a hot drink steeped in South American tradition—no pun intended.
Most widely found in Argentina, as well as nearby Paraguay, Uruguay, and southern Brazil, yerba maté is a species of the holly plant that grows in shrubs up to 15 meters tall. Its leaves and twigs are dried and then steeped in hot (though never boiling) water, resulting in an earthy, somewhat spicy tea.
Maté tea is traditionally prepared in a hollow calabash gourd that’s called by the same name, and sipped right from this maté
through a metal straw. Drinking maté is a highly social occasion: after the tea is brewed, the gourd is passed around and shared. When on the run, however, many South Americans carry personal-sized maté cups with them. On the streets of Buenos Aires, it’s not uncommon to see busy professionals walking down the street sipping from their thin metal straws—thermos of hot water in the other hand.
The tea’s appeal stems from its distinctive smoky flavor and its stimulating effects. The leaves contain high levels of mateine—simply another name for caffeine, when derived from the yerba maté plant. However, for reasons still under debate, many find maté gentler and easier to stomach than coffee, though it has nearly the same level of stimulants. Maté drinkers get the kick of caffeine without the jitters that come from of a cup of strong coffee; for many, a welcome change.
Like many imports landing in America, maté has taken on a myriad of unorthodox forms. “Mate Lattes” have popped up in formerly chai-heavy coffeeshops, while the “MateVeza
”—yes, that’s maté plus cerveza
—is an American-made ale brewed with a heavy dose of yerba mate. In both North and South Americas, maté is now sold in teabags, for at-home brewing with the convenience of any other black or herbal tea. But, as in so many cases, the best form is the most traditional: solid gourd, hot water, strong tea, and good company.