We were first introduced to Maté in some parts of Brazil, but mostly close to the border with Ciudad del Este, Paraguay. People were walking around with big thermal flasks in stylish and colourful handcrafted leather pouches, with a cup in hand drinking with a straw-like spoon.
Once we crossed the border into Paraguay, it was everywhere! The people were carrying these flasks with them everywhere: to the beach, to the shops, to the park. They drink it in the car, in the street, and they take it to work. They even take it to the club! We visited a Hard Rock Club in Asuncion where people were drinking their Tereré whilst others drink the usual beer!
So what are they drinking?
Yerba Maté (Ilex paraguariensis) is a herbal shrub that grows into a tree, originally cultivated by the Guarani people in Paraguay, and some Tupi in Brazil. The leaves of the shrub contain caffeine and xanthine alkaloids. Stimulants like caffeine and theobromine are derived from xanthine. Yeah, that just went over my head too!
Dried leaves and twigs of the plant is used as an infusion called Maté (with hot water) or Tereré (with ice water). It is pretty much a herbal, bitter tea like green tea.
A cup, called a matero, is filled ¾ with the leaves. You shake the leaves to one side to make a gap. A little water is poured into the gap to moisten the leaves. The spoon or bambillo is then placed in between the leaves and the water, and more water is then added. The spoon must not be moved at any time under any circumstances.
The spoon is like a straw: it is hollow on the inside with several holes in the bottom acting like a sieve for the water to be sucked through without the leaves.
Drinking of Maté and Tereré is a very social thing and the cup would be passed around in a circle of people to drink. Once the water in the cup is finished, it is refilled and passed around again. This will go on for hours. Once the leaves lose its flavour, the cup is emptied, and new leaves are added.
There is a whole ritual involved, however: the first batch of leaves is steeped in water until the water is totally soaked up by the leaves. New water is added and then the drinking and sharing begins.
In Paraguay, most people drink Tereré, the cold version. And also have the most stylish and convenient setup of the flask in leather holder with a holder for your cup. In Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil, it is most commonly consumed as Maté with hot water.
Many shops, kiosks, garages and even bus terminals would have points where you can either buy hot water to fill your flask or small packets of ice for cold water.
Guarani’s specifically start drinking the tea from 3 years of age and consume this tea daily, the whole day long… With the amount of caffeine in this tea, people should be hyper all day long.
When you think about it, people who love to drink coffee or tea, even coffee addicts do not drink it consistently throughout the day 24/7, so if it is an addiction is it much worse than the usual coffee addiction? Or are people just so used to it, it’s not really an addiction at all?
So the question is, is this just a culturally accepted obsession, or is it an addiction due to the high caffeine content?
I’m not sure if anyone knows.