What’s Brewing?

Tea, tisanes, and yerba mate

Cam Loeschmann // Columnist

If anyone knows me, they know that I am a fan of tea. “True” tea has its humble beginnings as a medicinal drink in China. While there are a lot of steep-able plants in the world, tasty leaf water brewed as tea is almost universal. These come in a wide variety. Often referred to as tisanes or herbal infusions—to avoid confusion with “true tea” (c. sinensis)—they include barley (mujicha) and kelp (kobucha) in Japan; rooibos and honeybush in South Africa; mint, lemongrass, chamomile, stinging nettle, and much, much more. The sky is truly the limit. Everything I have mentioned here is naturally caffeine-free, but there is a famous herbal infusion from South America that is known to pack a powerfully caffeinated punch.

Yerba mate (ilex paraguariensis), as well as its cousin Guayusa (i. guayusa), are made from the holly tree. They have similar health benefits to tea, such as energy and concentration without coffee’s jitters or crashes. According to Argentina’s Instituto Nacional de la Yerba Mate, however, one cup of yerba mate contains a staggering 78 milligrams of caffeine. Although the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s Caffeine Chart considers this an average amount on their list of tested coffees, among teas, this is startling.

Guayusa, mostly grown and consumed in the northwestern parts of South America (Peru, Ecuador and Colombia in particular), is a personal favourite. I like the faint sweetness and gentle citrus flavour. When steeped in a basket infuser, the leaves turn black when they hit the water, which is very visually intriguing and kind of spooky.

My experiences with yerba mate itself are limited. To fill in this gap of knowledge is my dear friend Rocio Bertón Bello, a nineteen-year-old language student from Argentina’s oldest university, La Universidad Nacional de Córdoba.

“Mate is very universal. Both rich and poor drink it. In almost all government price control programs, it is considered along with other essentials. You usually give it to kids as soon as they start asking for it. For children, you usually leave them the last mate [brew], almost cold, so they don’t burn themselves and with quite a bit of sugar.”

This faintly echoes my experiences with caffeine, as well as those of others from coffee-loving cultures. My first coffees were tiny cups that my father prepared for me as a toddler; overly sweet and cooled with lots of cream.

“You need two items for drinking mate that are non-negotiable: a bombilla [a metal straw with a filter at the bottom] and a suitable vessel. The traditional one is a hollowed out cured gourd because it keeps temperature and flavour better.”

Argentina is the world’s foremost producer of yerba. The province of Misiones grows the majority of yerba mate trees, which thrive—growing 12 to 15 metres tall—in the humid rainforests of northwest Argentina. Although Spanish colonizers spread mate throughout South America, and eventually, the world, the Guaraní people of southeastern South America have been drinking it, with gourds (colloquially known as mates, from the Quechua “mati”) and bombillas, for centuries before.

“Fill your chosen vessel two thirds full with mate leaves. Shake it vigorously up and down for about 30 seconds. Now, putting your finger over the drinking end of the bombilla, insert it into the leaves at an angle. Don’t stir it and don’t move it around, or it will get clogged. Slowly pour water [hot but never near boiling] in the deep end of the mate where your bombilla is, just enough so a portion of the leaves stays dry. The first two or three mates can be at the wrong temperature and/or have a lot of dust. If you’re the one making the mate, feel free to spit it out in the sink. If someone hands it to you, just suck it up.”

Mate, however, is more than a personal caffeination source. Just as drinking a pot of tea or coffee together is a way of bonding with friends or family, a gourd passed around spreads both mate and camaraderie. 

“An important part of mate is how when you’re drinking in a group, you share the same vessel; one person—the cebador—takes charge of the brewing and passes it around in a circle. Sharing a cup with other people is something some foreigners are weirded out by, but it’s very normal to us.”

It is this kind of community and culture that we seem to lack in Vancouver. Tea stores may sell yerba mate, but it is with the assumption that you will brew it like tea, steeped and separated from the leaves, what is known in Spanish as mate cocido, or “cooked mate”—torn away from tradition. Even so, it is better than the alternative; if one cannot share a mate with friends and family, then at least the warmth that bleeds through the vessel will keep you company.

What, if not that, is tea?

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