Yerba Mate History
Guarani, Jesuits and Three Types Explained

Learn more about yerba mate history and legends! Who discovered yerba mate, and how did it become South America's favorite beverage?

Yerba Mate History #1:
The Guarani

Yerba mate was originally used by a native South American tribe called the Guarani. They believed that yerba mate was a gift from the gods.

The Guarani were farmers, and the soil of the rainforest where they lived was easily depleted by intensive agriculture. So, every few years, they would move their fields and their homes somewhere new, and start all over again.

According to legend, long ago an old farmer, in ill health, decided he would rather wait until the end of his life all alone than move again. However, his daughter refused to leave his side, and stayed with him even after the rest of her tribe had moved on.

To reward her, the god Pa' i Shume visited the pair in the guise of an old shaman. The old man told the shaman that he wished his daughter could go and find the rest of their tribe. The shaman gave him the yerba mate plant as a gift, and taught him how to roast and prepare it.

After sipping the mate, the old man was no longer tired and weak. The mate gave him the strength to accompany his daughter to the place where the tribe had settled.

Once they were reunited with their kin, the old man and his daughter shared the secrets of mate with them, and the Guarani have been drinking it ever since.

Yerba Mate History #2:
The Jesuits

Although the Guarani discovered yerba mate, an order of Catholic priests called the Jesuits are responsible for its widespread popularity. They were the first group to begin trading yerba mate commercially.

After South America was “discovered” by the Europeans, the Jesuits flocked to the New World to try and convert the natives, including the Guarani, to Christianity. Although they were at first suspicious of yerba mate, they soon realized that the energizing elixir could potentially be profitable.

Starting in the late 17th century, they had native laborers grow it for them on large plantations on the missions, and transported it throughout South America to be sold.

After the Spanish government dismantled the Jesuit missions, the plantations were taken over by private corporations and nobility. While Jesuits may have been guilty of exploiting native American labor, they also educated them and protected them from other Europeans who were eager to force them into outright slavery. After they left, conditions at the missions became so bad that most of the natives left, too.

Without indigenous labor, it was not possible to grow yerba mate in plantations, and traders began hiring natives to go into the forest and harvest wild stands of it. Yerba mate would not be grown on plantations again until the 1890s.

Yerba Mate History #3:
Different Drinking Traditions

Over the centuries, yerba mate has become inextricably woven into the heart of South American culture. It is consumed throughout the day, most often with friends.

There are now three distinct yerba mate drinking traditions: chimarrão, mate cocido and tereré.


Chimarrão is hot mate brewed from dried green loose leaf mate leaves. The leaves are brewed in a dried gourd called a guampa, cabaça or cuia, depending on where in South America you are.

The hot tea is sipped through a silver drinking straw called a bombilla or a bomba. This tradition is not for the germophobic, as everyone shares the same straw.

The mate leaves are re-infused many times, until the infusion loses flavor or the mate drinkers lose interest.



Mate Cocido

Mate cocido can actually mean two different things.

In some regions, such as Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina, it can simply refer to mate leaves that have been roasted over a fire before being packaged and sold. This type of mate cocido can be sold either as loose leaves or in tea bags, and it always served sweetened.

Mate cocido can also refer to dried green mate leaves that are sold in teabags and brewed like tea. These are served with breakfast or with afternoon tea.

Mate Tereré

Mate tereré is simply iced, cold-brewed mate. It can be served plain or sweetened, and may be mixed with fruit juice or various medicinal herbs.

Yerba Mate History #4:
Mate Today

Today, yerba mate is becoming increasingly popular outside South America, as a tonic for both energy and weight loss. Scientists are also learning more and more about the health benefits of yerba mate. If you are looking for something different to drink, why not give it a try?


Yerba mate. Wikipedia.

Yerba mate and the Legend of the Guarani

Yerba Mate and the Jesuits. excerpt from Ross W. Jamieson's The Essence of Commodification: Caffeine dependencies in the early modern world. Journal of Social History, Winter 2001.

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