Green Your Caffeine With Yerba Mate

Yerba MateArgentina calls it their national drink. Uruguayans, Brazilians and Paraguayans consume large amounts of it. North Americans and Europeans are picking up on it. What the heck is it?

Yerba mate consists of the leaves and small stems of a type of holly that grows in Argentina and surrounding countries. The proper name is ilex paraguariensis, and it is the traditional drink of the Guarani Indians. Its leaves contain xanthine, an alkyloid in the same family as caffeine and theobromine. Some will say that “mateine,” as they style it, is not caffeine, but mateine is just a synonym for caffeine that comes from yerba mate.

As I sat down to write about yerba mate, I was faced with a dilemma – should I try to explain its cultural role, the social aspect? Should I expound on the healthy virtues of this tonic herb? Should I tout the nutritional benefits of it, referencing various studies and research results from experts and initial-wielding scientists? Maybe I should outline yerba mate’s 196 active compounds, and profile its antioxidants? Perhaps I should focus on its stimulating, mood-lifting properties, or its excellent abilities as a base for herbal infusions?

Or should I only share my own humble opinion?

So I consulted the Great Potato, using the ancient ritual of the coin toss, and the answer was:

Don’t dwell on the polyphenol content, the 15 amino acids, the chlorophyll, mineral and vitamin compounds. Don’t mention the immune boosting qualities, the possibility of increased vitality and lower LDL cholesterol levels.Don’t explain that it contains less caffeine than coffee, black or green teas. Just give your own testimonial about this amazing traditional herb.


I enjoy yerba mate on a regular basis — usually with peppermint leaves and a touch of honey mid-morning, and then my own blend of yerba, mint, clover, and licorice root in the evenings. I taper off to just peppermint before bedtime, but it doesn’t seem to affect me in falling asleep the way that java does when I need a late-day boost to finish up a project. I’ve had enough of the too-much-coffee-before-bed blues, so now yerba mate is the ticket for me.

I find that it works really well as a substitute for coffee, and that my energy level remains high and more stable than when I drink, say, a double americano. I consume far less refined sugar, and no creamer at all, when I drink yerba mate. Honey isn’t necessary, but it sure is enjoyable if you like things on the sweeter side. Agave nectar is tasty as well.

Yerba mate can be brewed in tea bags, but traditionally it is placed in a gourd, with cool water, then filled with hot water and sipped (or slurped) through a bombilla, or strainer straw. The water temperature should be almost, but not quite, boiling. Some don’t mind the “boiled” flavor, but it can be bitter to others.

Medicinal herbs go nicely with yerba mate. When I’m feeling under the weather, osha root is my herb of choice. I chop up a chunk and put it in with licorice and peppermint. When I use chopped licorice root, I don’t ever need sweetener. The gourd can be refilled with hot water many times, and yerba (and honey or cream) added as needed. When the taste is weak, I put a couple more spoonfuls of mate in the gourd (no need to empty it).

The spent herbs can be composted or used as mulch for houseplants, and the gourd is easily rinsed and dried, ready for the next go-around. There are several varieties of yerba, some green, some smoked and aged in cedar, and some with roasted grains (dark roast style yerba). Traditional gourds are super, but you could easily drink it from a ceramic mug or a glass mason jar. Bombillas can be found wherever yerba mate is sold.

I like to make yerba mate sun-tea and keep it in the fridge during the summer. In the winter, I pack my bag with a thermos of hot water, my gourd and bombilla, and I’ve got a stellar tea-time waiting to happen. There are a wide variety of mate-teas for sale, some blended with other flavors, and many kinds ready to drink in the soda cooler. Tea-bags are great when you don’t have your mate gear with you, but it takes two or three bags to brew a decent cup.

If you’re looking for a healthier alternative to coffee, or need a healthy afternoon pick-me-up that doesn’t give you the jitters, or your kids keep telling you to chill out and your wife hides the french press, give yerba a try – I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Derek Markham

Things I dig include: simple living, natural fatherhood, attachment parenting, natural building, unassisted childbirth (homebirth), bicycles, permaculture, organic and biodynamic gardening, vegan peanut butter cookies with chocolate chips, bouldering, and the blues. Find me elsewhere at @NaturalPapa, @DerekMarkham, Google+, or RebelMouse.

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