Yerba Mate, a botanically unique and culturally indispensable South American beverage, is storied for not only its stimulating, head-clearing properties but also for its role in social traditions. The drink, enjoyed most traditionally passed among friends in a ceremonial mate gourd, requires a brewing method as unique as the beverage itself.
Somewhere between coffee, tea, and spiritual journey, mate enjoys credit for health-benefitting antioxidant properties beyond “just” those in coffee and tea. So what are the best ways to unlock the maybe-mystical qualities of mate? For purists, a mate gourd (which is also called a mate) and a bombilla—the traditional metal mate-drinking straw with a filtered bottom chamber—are the way to go, but if for convenience you want to steep in a French press, instead, we’ll offer no judgments.
First, track down a quality loose-leaf yerba mate. Beyond the leaves of Ilex paraguariensis, you’ll often find mate blended with complementary flavors such as lemongrass, licorice, mint, or even cocoa, to make its naturally earthy taste a little more palatable. Select either a pure mate or a blend that appeals to you, and fill your gourd from one-third to two-thirds full of the leafy, stemmy mixture, depending on how strong you’d like your final drink to be. (You’ll have to filter these leaves later, but we’ll get to that.)
The drink, enjoyed most traditionally passed among friends in a ceremonial mate gourd, requires a brewing method as unique as the beverage itself.
After dosing your gourd with the desired amount of mate, tilt it at an angle until the mate has gravitated toward one side of the bowl. Then, fill the gourd with cool water to pre-moisten the mate leaves and stems. Pour in just enough water for the leaves and stems to become fully saturated, and wait up to a minute. You may use the bombilla at this stage to hold the leaves against the wall of the gourd as you pour.
Next, fill the remaining space in the mate gourd with moderately hot water—you’re looking for a range between 150-170 Fahrenheit, depending on your taste preferences and which health benefits you believe are most accentuated by different water temperatures. A mild froth should appear on the top of the mate infusion. Drink the initial brew of mate using the bombilla already in the gourd, and fill again with hot water. You’re now ready to begin drinking the mate in earnest, and hopefully you’ve already gathered a circle of friends about you to pass the gourd around with—sharing mate is an essential part, after all, of its enjoyment.
Reinfuse the mate with hot water to the duration and number of repetitions of your preference, even a dozen times, and observe how the flavors change and evolve. While these directions may seem imprecise, that’s intentional: each factor depends somewhat on the drinker’s taste for intensity of flavor, perceived health benefit, or the amount of people she is sharing with. Attention should be paid at the end of the drinking session to proper care for the mate gourd itself; some will say to allow the gourd to cure by leaving water-mate mixture overnight, while others will advise a proper scraping-out with the bombilla and thorough drying. You’ll get to know your mate gourd better than anyone, so pick the method that makes the most sense to you.
Outside of gourd-brewing, it’s also common to infuse mate with warm milk (the mate latte), or for cooler drinks, coconut milk, fruit juices like lemon, lime, or pineapple, cool water, or even beer! Just remember—one of the joys of mate is its mythology and ritual, so whichever way you prefer your mate, make sure it’s a ritual you love, which in turn will be one you’ll love to share.
—Liz Clayton is a writer and photographer based in Brooklyn.