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Everything You’ve Yearned to Know About Yerba Maté

Ila Bonczek
Ila lives in the Garden State with her family and four chickens. She has been growing produce and perennials for 20 years, and recommends gardening for food and fun, but not for fortune.
Published: May 25, 2023
Yerba mate, a ubiquitous element of South American culture, is gaining worldwide popularity. (Image: MESSALA CIULLA via pexels)

Yerba maté is a caffeinated herbal beverage widely consumed in South America, much like coffee is enjoyed in North America and many European countries. The traditional processing, preparation and method for drinking maté are fairly fascinating; but the reason yerba maté is becoming more and more popular around the world is due to a number of powerful properties and health benefits — all from the leaf of a humble holly. 

The yerba maté tree

Yerba maté (Ilex paraguariensis), is one of nearly 600 species in the genus Ilex, all of which belong to the holly family (Aquifoliaceae). It is native to Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, and cultivated mainly in Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. 

This broadleaf evergreen can grow up to and over 30 feet tall, but in cultivation it is often kept at a more manageable height. Just like our Christmas holly, Yerba maté gets clusters of small red berries, but these are considered mildly toxic. 

Ilex paraguariensis is a member of the holly family. Its thick, evergreen leaves have been used for centuries to make yerba maté. (Image: Ilosuna via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

The leaves, however, have been used to make a stimulating brew for hundreds of years, beginning with South America’s indigenous populations. Before that, it may have been used in a smoking blend, as carbonized leaves of yerba maté and other herbs were found in a smoking pipe dated around 600 BC.

Yerba maté production process

The leathery leaves of Ilex paraguariensis are harvested throughout various time frames in different areas, depending on the altitude, humidity, and temperature. They can be hand picked; but machetes, hand saws or electric scissors are often used to make the process quicker and less tiring. 

The leaves are collected into a tarp where they are sorted for size and quality. The largest leaves are discarded, while the smaller leaves must be quickly dried to prevent oxidation and quality deterioration. 


Within 24 hours, the leaves are carefully heated directly over fire for a short period of time. This process is called sapecado. Done right, it will yield a flavorful yerba maté with a rich aroma, that is a uniform deep green color. 

The second stage of drying is called fogueado. The leaves are spread out and exposed to hot air (around 170°F) for up to 12 hours, or until they have lost 80 percent of their moisture. Yerba maté is often gently smoked during this period, giving it a distinctive flavor. 

Chimarrao vs yerba maté (Image: ChimaAddicted via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)


Next, the leaves are coarsely cut into small squares. The cut leaves, called canchado, are bagged and aged, like wine, in chambers where humidity, light, and temperature are carefully regulated. Aging, which can take up to 2 years, allows the canchado to mature into a rich yerba maté blend that will maintain its properties for later consumption. 


As is true with many foods, every region has its own recipe. Chimarrão, common in Brazil, undergoes a similar drying process, but is never smoked. After the leaves are cut, the coarse pieces are sifted out and the remaining leaves are milled and pounded into a fine powder. This bright green chimarrão is packaged directly for a fresh — rather than aged — product. Brazil’s chimarrão is comparable to Japan’s matcha, a fresh, powdered version of green tea.

Traditional preparation of yerba maté

While you can find yerba maté in tea bag form and drop it into a mug, the traditional method of consumption bears little resemblance to your typical cup of tea. For one thing, it is typically prepared in and drunk from the shell of a gourd, or calabash. 

Also, rather than a teaspoon or so of tea leaf, the gourd is loosely packed up to two thirds full with dried yerba maté leaves. The coarser material is shaken to the bottom, and steeped in room temperature water for under a minute. Then the gourd is filled the rest of the way with medium hot (not boiling) water. 

Selection of Yerba Mate Gourds at a street vendor, Buenos Aires, Argentina (Image: Marshallhenrie via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)

As you can imagine, trying to sip this out of a gourd could be an unpleasant textural experience. To keep all these fibrous particles out of the mouth, a special instrument — called a bomba — is used to strain the tea. A bomba is basically a metal straw, with a spoon-shaped sieve at the bottom. 

The maté is slurped through the bomba, and the gourd is refilled with warm water after the first cup is finished. It seems like a lot of hassle for a cup of tea, yet yerba maté is consumed daily in the vast majority of homes in its native countries. What makes this bitter brew so special?

Benefits of yerba maté

Yerba maté is rich in nutrients, antioxidants, and other natural plant compounds. With micronutrients like thiamine, riboflavin, potassium, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and manganese, a 2008 study by da Silva et al. concluded that yerba maté contains nearly all the vitamins and minerals necessary to sustain life. 

That said, it’s not surprising that many people have found yerba maté to be beneficial in various ways. 

Improve energy and focus

With caffeine levels ranging between those of tea and coffee, yerba maté is often used to improve focus and shake off drowsiness. It also contains xanthines — mild stimulants and bronchodilators useful in the treatment of asthma and influenza. Together, the two stimulants work to increase alertness in the central nervous system. It can improve concentration without the unpleasant crash one might experience after drinking coffee.

Heart health

Yerba maté contains saponins, which can help lower LDL cholesterol levels, reducing the risk of cardiac arrest, strokes, and bypass surgeries. Antioxidants like caffeoyl and polyphenols found in yerba maté may also help protect against heart disease. 

Boost immunity

The leaves of yerba maté contain vitamin C, along with a number of antioxidant compounds, to support a healthy immune system. Some studies have shown yerba maté to be a more potent antioxidant than red wine or green tea. One study suggests that the consumption of yerba maté reduces the risk of breast cancer. 

Weight loss

Yerba maté has been demonstrated to help burn stored fat, improve metabolism, and also suppress the appetite. As it stimulates the oxidation of fat, it can make one feel more full, or less hungry — all of which can contribute to significant weight loss.

Headache relief

In my own anecdotal experience, I accidentally discovered yerba maté to be very effective in relieving headaches. I had a dull headache after the long drive to see my family, and it was surprisingly persistent even after a good night’s rest. My brother keeps an odd variety of herbal tea bags in the cupboard, and I’m always willing to try a new brew.

(Image: Mary Houston)

This time I chose something labeled “La Tranquera,” with a picture of a horse on the box. Shortly after I finished my mug, not only was my headache gone, but I also felt especially alert and energized. I examined the package more closely and found that I had just consumed yerba maté for the first time in my life. 

I figured this was a good herb to keep on hand, so I secured a bag of loose, organic yerba maté online. I don’t drink it every day; but if I remember it, it gives me a nice energy boost when I’m feeling dull and drained. 

My daughter has a friend who suffers regular migraines, often causing her to miss school. I gave her mom a portion of my stash to see if it might give her some relief. When the next migraine came around, she tried it, and both mother and daughter were delighted to find that it significantly reduced the duration of her migraine. 


Some concerns have been raised about the possible carcinogenic effect of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) found in yerba maté. Epidemiological studies found an increased risk of cancer of the esophagus, larynx, and oral cavity with the consumption of hot yerba maté; but it is important to note that the subjects were not only consuming copious amounts of the herb, but were also consuming it hot. Subsequent studies found other beverages to be carcinogenic as well when consumed hot. 

In normal traditional use, the herb is consumed warm, at room temperature, or even cold; and outside of South America, it is seldom brewed any stronger than your average cup of tea. If you consume your yerba maté warm (around 150 °F), and enjoy it in moderation there seems to be very little to worry about.

In addition, PAHs are found in nearly everything we consume. Smoked yerba maté contains significantly more PAHs than non-smoked, so if this is a concern you can simply choose the Brazilian variety, chimarrão, for similar benefits with fewer risks.