Yerba Mate

In Argentina and neighboring regions the historical caffeinated drink, yerba mate has a number of unique historical and social settings. Early Spanish explorers and settlers learned about the stimulatory effects of yerba mate from the native Americans living in that region. Soon after settlement in South America, the Spaniards made slaves of some of those native Americans to harvest yerba mate systematically. Harvesting the leaves and stems of the holly-like bush, where the caffeine resides, requires some care and discretion. The newest leaves from the newest stems have the most caffeine. If too many of those new leaves are harvested, the plant dies. Since it takes three or four years for a new bush to produce high caffeine-content new leaves, there is a profound interest in keeping a producing bush alive. It’s also interesting that the bush could grow up and up to a tall tree, but then the harvesting would be more difficult. The new or mature bush, or short tree, is a domestic asset requiring some harvesting, but not too much. The freshly picked leaves and stems of the yerba mate bush are carefully dried. Often a branch of new leaves will be passed through a flame. This process enhances the flavor. Remember, this plant is related to holly, so the dried products are not like tender tealeaves; they have a woody texture. Traditionally, the dried leaves and stems are made into a “sawdust” like mixture which can be stuffed into a gourd with a small hole in it. Traditionally the gourd containing the dried leaves is dosed with boiling water. The drinker will insert a straw or a silver tube into the gourd and drink the contents. Then another dose of boiling water will be injected and a second drinker can insert his or her straw or tube. This can be repeated several times before the caffeine, the other actives, and the flavor components are exhausted from the initial charge of the dried leaves and stems. The gourd can then be replenished for another round of drinks. In more recent times the pulverized leaves and stems have been incorporated into tea bags for processing like tea. Some herbal combinations containing yerba mate have been erroneously marketed as “caffeine free.” Even though the caffeine content of the dried yerba mate mixture is only 1%-2%, there will be enough of the mixture in the gourd to provide substantial caffeine to the several drinkers. The slowness of the extraction provides for several doses of hot water to have a substantial amount of caffeine and flavor as the gourd is passed around. Also, the teabag containing yerba mate will contain a substantial amount of caffeine.

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