What Is Yerba Maté Tea?
Deep within the Amazon rainforest grows a tall tree known botanically as Ilex paraguariensis.
We call this yerba maté.
The large leathery leaves are high in the same alkaloids that give coffee its energizing properties.
In South America, and increasingly in other areas of the world, people are beginning to adopt this beverage for these stimulating and energizing actions.
Many people are now choosing to swap out their morning or afternoon coffee with the brew of this rainforest plant.
Here, we discuss what yerba maté is, how it’s processed, and why people prefer it to coffee.
What Is Yerba Maté Good For?
People use yerba maté for:
Working long hours
Working or studying through the night
Improving your time on a run
Promoting ketosis in the body
Waking up faster in the morning
In groups as a social practice
As a replacement for coffee
Though the main uses for yerba maté are for its ability to stimulate the central nervous system, there is a big difference between the actions of this plant, and the more commonly used coffee.
The alkaloids in the yerba maté plant are similar and include caffeine, but also include other chemicals that work directly against the anxious, jittery, and blood pressure spiking activity of the caffeine molecule.
This gives yerba maté a much smoother energizing effect in the body, perfect for those who may sensitive to caffeine.
The Stimulating Alkaloids Of Yerba Maté
They work together to provide stimulating, cognitive enhancing, and metabolism enhancing effects on the central nervous system.
In various cultures across the globe, these alkaloids have become integrated into society as a way to stimulate conversation, improve productivity, or simply feel more awake during the day.
Caffeine itself is the most popular stimulant in the world.
Between its use in tea (Camellia sinensis), coffee (Coffea arabica), and yerba maté (Ilex paraguariensis) there is plenty of ways to obtain this phytochemical.
According to the FDA in 2007, nearly 80% of Americans consume caffeine on a daily basis in one form or another.
How Caffeine Works
Caffeine works by blocking a series of receptors known as "Adenosine receptors". These react to a naturally ocurring chemical called adenosine, which biuilds up over the course of the day, and begins binding to the adenosine receptors. This triggers a delay in the neurons of the brain, which slow the transmission overall, and cause us to feel sleepy.
This process is very important in making us tired at the end of the day to help us sleep, and tell our bodies to shut down. Caffeine works by binding to these receptors without triggering the delay response in the neuron. This prevents the real adenosine from binding, and thus prevents the sensation of sleepiness as a result of adenosine modulated nerve impulse delays.
Although coffee and tea from the camellia plant tend to be the most popular source of this caffeine world wide, throughout South America, especially places like Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil, yerba maté is hugely popular.
Yerba maté is one of the best ways to consume caffeine on a regular basis and actually has several advantages over both coffee and tea from the camellia plant...
Yerba Maté vs Coffee
Yerba maté is stimulating to the central nervous system, but tends to have less side effects than coffee.
The jitteriness, anxiety, and general overstimulated symptoms easily brought on with coffee are much harder to reach with yerba maté for several reasons.
There is a myth going around that the reason is because yerba maté contains a different alkaloid known as "mateine" rather than caffeine.
Promoters suggest that this chemical is special because it provides the same stimulating, cognitive improving, and energy enhancing effects as the caffeine from coffee, but miraculously has absolutely NO known side effects.
Like anything else, if it's too good to be true, it most likely isn't true...
Yerba mate has be shown many times to have a high concentration of caffeine, which can be as high as 2% of the dried leaf by weight. This compares to coffee with 2.2% by dried and roasted seed weight.
The effects of the caffeine are exactly the same as they were in coffee, or tea. It stimulates the CNS, promotes vasoconstriction (tightening of the arteries to increase pressure), adenosine antagonism, and promotes the force of contraction in the heart.
These actions all work together to promote the effects it has on keeping us awake, and energized.
Yerba mate offers the additional benefits of a related alkaloid known as "theobromine".
This alkaloid is also stimulating to the CNS, though much gentler, and has a few opposite effects on the arteries and peripheral blood vessels of the body.
In effect, theobromine works to combat many of the side effects like jitteriness, anxiety, and dizziness and helps to open up the airways to the lungs, adding furhter benefit to cognition and physical performance.
This alkaloid is most commonly found in the chocolate plant (Theobroma cacao).
Yerba mate contains theobromine in concentrations of about 0.5% of the dried leaf weight.
Compare this to coffee, which has about <0.1% theobromine.
The Yerba Maté Tree
The dried, roasted, and chopped leaves of the Ilex paraguariensis tree are what makes up the product we call yerba maté.
The tree itself is very large, and grows deep in the Amazon rainforest.
For centuries it has been a celebrated beverage by the local indigenous societies of the region, which has spread to other parts of South America, the Middle East, and eventually Europe and North America.
The tree contains roughly 24 different vitamins, and 15 amino acids in its leaves.
On top of this rich nutritional content, yerba maté contains a huge number of antioxidant molecules, which have a wide and non-specific benefit on the body overall.
How To Prepare Yerba Maté
The preparation of yerba maté is a bit different than other teas.
The traditional method uses a gourd or small cup known as the "Mate", and a special straw with a filter in the bottom to keep the leaves out known as a bombilla.
To drink yerba maté the traditional way, you will need to find a bombilla and gourd.
Additionally a thermos is a great optional tool for the practice to keep your water hot.
The general idea is to fill the gourd up about 50% with dried yerba mate tea, insert the bombilla, and fill with water.
Once the pot has been finished, just add more water and repeat. You should get 15-25 "rounds" out of a cup of yerba mate.
Check out this video by Circle of Drink for a good overview on the process.
If you want to try yerba maté without buying a gourd and bombilla, the best alternative is to use a french press.
Tea bags are also available, though not recommended. They are not strong enough, and often use low quality, powdered leaves which will taste highly bitter and may have additives to remove some of this bitterness.
The bombilla is the special straw with a filter in the bottom to prevent any of the leaves from going into the mouth while you drink your yerba maté.
There are many different shapes and sizes of bombillas available. All have their own benefits and specialized uses, and different people will prefer different styles.
We recommend using this one if you don't know where to start.
The gourd is actually the "maté". it is the container in which the water and leaves are mixed into. Traditionally this was made from a calabash gourd that was hollowed, emptied, and cured.
Though you can still buy this type of gourd today they tend to add an un wanted bitter flavour, mould easily, and don't last long. better options are wooden, metal, glass, and plastic gourds.
Where To Find Yerba Maté
You can find yerba mate at most tea shops, as well as online.
The best way to purchase this tea is in larger amounts, usually around 1-2Kg. There are several companies that sell the tea as a blend with other herbs and teas and this can also be done yourself at home.
My personal favourite yerba maté at the moment is Cruz De Malta.
The Sunlight Experiment
(Updated October 2018)