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Yerba Mate: New Herbal trends

by Chris Cason

Guarani Shaman

Yerba Mate

Enjoying Yerba Mate

What's different about your cup?

Just when you thought you've tried every tea on the map, a new blip appears on the radar, a new variation on the classic tea theme. In this month's edition of TeaMuse, we'll explore the newest fad from the tea scene, Yerba Mate.

Historians tell us that the use of this herbal infusion in South America (specifically in Uruguay, Paraguay, Argentina and Southern Brazil) dates back thousands of years. Like most teas, there are myriad stories explaining the origins of this beverage. So before we discuss the specifics, let's disinter its legendary beginnings.

According to one myth, when the ancestors of the Paraguayan Guarani tribe first settled in the Americas, they discovered a land that was beautiful but full of danger. Supposedly, during those first taxing years, a light-skinned, bearded god (as far as I can tell, no relation to yours truly) descended from the heavens to bring prosperity to the Guarani. Significant to our story, he divulged the secrets of the healing qualities of native plants. One of the most important of these insights was how to harvest and prepare the leaves of the Yerba Mate tree in the form of a beverage.

Another legend says that, an old man, too weary from the arduous nomadic life, decided to leave his tribe behind. His daughter, bound by duty to stay at her father's side, helped him build a home which they could spend the rest of his days. One day, a shaman passed by and was touched by the daughter's love for her father, and promised her anything she desired. Being that her only wish was directly against her father's wishes (to return to her tribe), she said nothing. Seeing his daughter's sorrow, the old man begged, "I wish I had the energy to find my tribe and bring my daughter back to our people."

The shaman bestowed a plant upon the old man and his daughter, instructing them how to cultivate it, then pick the leaves, dry them on fire, grind them, add hot water and drink the resulting mixture. Sipping the green liquid, the old man quickly recovered his strength and soon was able to make the trip back to his tribesmen. The old man recounted the discovery and the whole tribe adopted the habit of drinking this concoction, and became one of the strongest, most powerful tribes in the land, the Guarani.

Yerba Mate is still one of the most common household cures of the Guarani. As with other brewed herbs, Yerba Mate is, at its most basic, just a dried form of the plant. Unlike other herbal brews, though, Yerba Mate contains caffeine. Proponents of Yerba Mate often claim that the stimulant is similar to caffeine but without the negative effects. Some mate products are even marketed as "caffeine-free" alternatives to coffee and tea. However, this is not only misleading, but scientifically untrue. It has been proven that Yerba Mate contains mateine, which is just another name for caffeine. This makes Yerba Mate one of the only herbal teas to contain caffeine.

A unique aspect of this herbal infusion is that it is traditionally contained in a hollow gourd, sipped through a bombilla, a special metal straw. In fact, the name "Mate" derives from the native South American word for a gourd, "matí" (just in case you're interested, "Yerba" translates to grass or herb). Another interesting fact about Yerba Mate is that it shares a quite a few of the same health benefits as found in "real" tea (from the Camellia Sinensis plant). In fact, of the 196 volatile chemical compounds found in Yerba Mate, 144 are also found in tea.

At this point, my faithful reader, you're probably thinking, "I guess Adagio's gonna start selling Yerba Mate, so when is he going to sneak in the Adagio marketing?" Actually, I've received tons of emails -- mostly from the California area, where the Yerba Mate trend is taking off in the US--with a similar inquiry. Unfortunately for my West Coast friends and the Guarani, Adagio does not have any immediate plans to stock Yerba Mate.

You may have noticed that I've neglected to mention a rather prevalent aspect of this herbal tea: the taste. To remain diplomatic, it may be an acquired taste. I guess the best way to describe it is like a combination of lightly smoked wood, weak coffee and flavored hay. To make a long explanation short, while we do not claim to be dictators of the American palate, we have a strict policy not to sell any teas that we wouldn't drink ourselves.

However, what this tea lacks in taste quality, it makes up in other aspects. The cultural history behind this drink is rich and deep, and the concept is refreshingly unique. In other words, Yerba Mate is good to know if not to taste, and should be duly celebrated.