Argentina

Learning to Drink Mate in Buenos Aires

Argentina’s most beloved drink is Mate. I’d heard of Mate prior to our trip to Argentina, and was aware of its popularity in several other South American countries, too. But otherwise, I knew nothing about Mate, and looked forward to giving it a try in Buenos Aires for the first time. Once we arrived, I expected to easily find the country’s most popular drink. I figured I’d order it in coffee shops or restaurants. Or maybe there were Mate bars? Yet two weeks into our stay, I still hadn’t found tourist-accessible Mate anywhere in Beunos Aires. I frequently saw Argentines drinking Mate out of its characteristic vessel. Various tour guides talked about their deep love for Mate and its importance in Argentine social culture…but didn’t really know where we tourists could easily get any. So mid-trip, drinking mate in Buenos Aires became my quest.

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What is Mate Anyway?

Mate is an herbal drink made by soaking the dried leaves of the Yerba Mate plant in warm water. Similar in concept to tea – but a different kind of plant and a completely different kind of preparation.

A cup of Mate in at a Mate class in Buenos Aires

The Yerba Mate plant is a species of holly, and Argentina is the world’s largest grower.

The Yerba leaves are rich in caffeine – more caffeine than tea, less than coffee. But the leaves also contain two other natural alkaloid substances – theobromine and theopylline. The unique mixture of these three alkaloids produce a somewhat different effect on your body than coffee and tea. While it is stimulating due to the caffeine content, the other alkaloids give Mate a calming or anti-anxiety effect.

Alert and calm? Sounds like the perfect drink. I really wanted to try it.

A Mate Experience for Tourists

After ultimately realizing that we wouldn’t ever be able to try Mate in a cafe, I searched both Viator and Airbnb Experiences, looking for a Mate class. After all, we learned how to make paella in Spain. Certainly someone was teaching tourists how to make Mate in Buenos Aires.

And indeed, I found exactly what I was looking for. A company called The Mate Experience. They teach all about Mate inside a gourmet grocery store that sells organic Mate. A store that happened to be just around the corner from our Airbnb rental. I had walked past this shop called Luro Almacén multiple times in our first two weeks. I had no idea they sold Mate, nor had ever walked by while a class was in session.

I’m so glad I found it. This two hour class was the perfect introduction to Mate.

A woman explains all about Mate at a Mate Class in Buenos Aires

Along with four other tourists, our teacher Luisa taught us all about Mate. And it didn’t take long to understand why we couldn’t just walk into a coffee shop and order a cup. Preparing and drinking Mate is an involved, multi-step process.

Tourists sit around a table and learn about Mate in Buenos Aires

A Mate and a Bombilla

First of all, Mate requires very specific equipment. Traditionally, Mate is both prepared in and consumed from a unique type of cup. It’s made from a calabash gourd, and this particular species of gourd is called porongo in Spanish. The cup, once made from the porongo, is called a Mate. So yes, you do drink Mate from a Mate.

(And to add to all the potential double name confusion in this post, the brand of Yerba Mate sold exclusively in the store is named Porongo after the gourd. And advertised unintentionally everywhere in my photos.)

A Porongo - the gourd that a Mate cup is made from
A Porongo
A Mate and a Bombilla
A Mate and Bombilla

A specialized straw – called a Bombilla – is used to drink Mate from the Mate. Bombillas are now mostly made from stainless steel, though in the distant past natural cane plants were used, and more expensive metals like silver can be used as well. A bombilla has a filter on the end. This prevents you from sucking in the Yerba leaves and their remnants while you drink your Mate.

Bombillas lined up on a table at the San Telmo market in Buenos Aires
Various Bombillas at the San Telmo Market in Buenos Aires

Making Mate – It’s A Process!

Once you have the correct Mate-making equipment, it’s time to prepare the Mate.

First, you fill the cup with Yerba leaves. About 3/4 full.

Pouring Yerba leaves into a Mate cup
The correct amount of Yerba leaves when making Mate

Second, you cover the cup with your hand and shake it up and down. By so doing, a light powdery residue from the leaves rises to the surface and away from the bottom of the cup where all the actual Mate-making action happens.

Shaking a Mate to help separate out the powder from the leaves

Unavoidably, some of the powder ends up on your hand and you blow it away.

Yerba Mate powder on a hand after shaking the cup

Third, you tilt the cup and situate the Yerba leaves at an angle along one side.

Yerba Leaves in the correct position prior to introducing the bombilla

Fourth, you pour a small amount of hot water at the base of the cup along the newly exposed edge. Water temperature is very important when making Mate. The ideal temperature is less than boiling – around 70-80 degrees Celsius. If it’s too hot, the Mate will taste too bitter. Conveniently, the electric kettles in Argentina have a temperature setting specifically for Mate.

Pouring water into Yerba leaves while preparing Mate

Fifth, situate the bombilla exactly where you poured the water. It should be touching both the bottom and the side of the cup. While situating the bombilla, place your thumb over the drinking end. This helps prevent Mate powder from getting up into the bombilla as it pushes through the dry leaves.

Correctly positioning a Bombilla into a Mate cup

The newly wet leaves keeps the filter-end of the bombilla in place. From this point onward, you do not move the bombilla from this initial position. By keeping it in the same position, you are reducing the inflow of Yerba debris into the bombilla while drinking your Mate.

A Bombilla in the correct position within a Mate cup

Sixth, add a little more water and sip your Mate.

Sipping Mate during The Mate Experience in Buenos Aires

While drinking Mate, you add small amounts of water repeatedly on the bombilla side of the cup.

Add water. Sip. Add water. Sip. And so on.

You don’t allow the leaves to steep for too long (more than a few minutes), otherwise the Mate becomes too bitter. And for similar reasons, you don’t fill the cup with water. Small amounts of water added repeatedly is the correct way to drink Mate.

Sweeten It Up

Even when brewed correctly, Mate is a little bitter. More bitter and grassy than green tea. So, sweeteners can be added if you prefer. And as we learned at our Mate class in Buenos Aires, you can even add other herbs to enhance the flavor.

(We also learned that the Yerba leaves can have differences in taste depending on where it is grown. Much like the terroir of a wine).

Our classroom table was covered with multiple jars containing all kinds of herbs. They were all labeled in Spanish and the only one I really recognized was Mint. I love green tea with Mint, so this is the flavoring I naturally gravitated towards.

Luisa taught us to add the herbs and the sweetener on top of the Yerba leaves in the same “pour area” that we had been using all along. When we added the water, the flavors were then pulled down into the liquid.

Sugar and Mint sit atop Yerba leaves

I much preferred the sweetened Mate, and the mint added a nice touch as well.

Ultimately, I also tried some of the artisan honey they sell in the store, and this became my favorite way to drink Mate.

Honey sits atop Yerba leaves

The Social Aspect of Mate

Luisa also taught us about the social importance of Mate in Buenos Aires, and Argentina, and every other culture that regularly consumes Mate. Drinking Mate is often a shared communal experience where a single Mate is passed back and forth.

In fact, there is a traditional protocol when Mate is shared communally. One person – called a cebador – prepares the mate and pours individual servings for everyone involved. After each pour, the cebador passes the Mate to a different participant who then drinks their serving and passes it back to the cebodor. The cebador then pours again and passes to the next person. And so on. Back and forth until everyone has had their fill.

Luisa explained that COVID certainly took its toll on this tradition, and that sharing a Mate has become less common now, except within households. Sharing was very much discouraged by the Argentine government during the worst of the pandemic, and now a one cup/one person approach to Mate is more the norm. She admitted that she never liked the idea of sharing anyway and welcomes the change.

Plus it has always been perfectly acceptable for individuals to drink Mate on their own anyway. It’s never been an exclusively social event. It’s a very common site in Buenos Aires to see people pouring water from a thermos into their own Mate and taking a sip.

Our Own Mate Afternoons

Since Mrs. TT and I consider ourselves experiential travelers, we easily concluded, after our class, that we would continue to drink Mate during the rest of our stay in Buenos Aires. We purchased our own Mate cups, bombillas, and a bag of organic Porongo Yerba Mate.

Mate atop of kitchen counter

Because Mate cups made from gourds need to be cured, we opted for ceramic cups (as you see in the photo). We didn’t want to miss out on potential Mate drinking days during the 2 weeks we had remaining in Buenos Aires.

We are regular afternoon tea drinkers and we simply substituted our tea time with Mate time. Sure, it’s much more involved than drinking tea. But we didn’t mind at all. It’s part of the fun of experiencing a new place and culture.

And So, Was I Alert and Calm?

Yes! I really liked Mate’s mental effect. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. For me, Mate did deliver a very definite and persistent feeling of calm that lasted for several hours. But that calm is associated with the same sense of mental alertness that comes from caffeine – as opposed to the tiredness that is usually associated with calm-inducing substances. I read that because of these effects, Mate can help you focus and think clearer. And I absolutely agree.

Mate also has an appetite suppressant effect, and I noticed this as well.

The Thorough Tripper drinking Mate in Buenos Aires while working on his laptop

Final Thoughts

I’m glad that I persisted in finding a way to drink Mate while we were in Buenos Aires. Not only was it important for me to learn about this long-standing Argentine tradition and drink, but I also personally came to enjoy drinking Mate myself.

Be sure to seek out your own Mate experience when you visit Buenos Aires. I found The Mate Experience through Airbnb and here’s the link. If you prefer to book your experiences through Viator, then here’s a link to another option.

And if you won’t be traveling to Buenos Aires or other Mate-drinking regions of South America, and want to give Mate a try, then you can find Mate and the required supplies on Amazon.com.

If you want to read about the food in Argentina and another great guided experience in Buenos Aires, then check out my post on A Unique Food Tour in Buenos Aires. To learn more about Buenos Aires in general, then check out my post 11 Photos That Will Convince You to Visit Buenos Aires or 10 Practical Buenos Aires Travel Tips. And if you want to know more about Argentina’s iconic Eva Perón, then check out my post on Exploring Famous Evita Sites in Buenos Aires.

If you would like to read more about some of my favorite food and drink experiences around the world, then check out these posts

Eating Tapas in Seville Spain.

Seeking Out Great Korean Food in Las Vegas

An Evening Quest for The Best Chicken in Lisbon

Food of Japan – 12 Great Things to Eat While Visiting

10 Comments

  • Ryan Biddulph

    What a cool breakdown Steven. The process does look quite involved. Drinking Mate sounds like a good mix between feeling a little more stimulated and alert without the sometimes hyper jittery effects of ingesting pure caffeine. As for me, I tried a wee bit of what was labeled as Mate tea in Cusco, Peru. Not sure if it was real or not because I felt relaxed and a bit buzzed and I also bought it way outside of a tourist area in a Peruvian neighborhood on the outskirts of town. I rented a beautiful place where I turned out to be the only gringo for a mile or so LOL.

    Ryan

  • Peggy Zipperer

    What a great class for you two, and it is fantastic that you continued to enjoy your new skills every afteroon. I tried Mate (after reading this, I’m not too sure it was authentic) at a Yerba Mate “tea house” in Savannah. I did not care for it at all but that could be from not knowing what to expect and what to order. Maybe another attempt is in order, but I’ll wait until I’m in South America.

  • Scott

    Thanks for this thoughtful tutorial and the sequence pics of proper mate preparation. I recently received mate ceremony instructions in Patagonia from locals. They were eerily similar to the instructions you received. Your instructions above will be an excellent reminder. Well done!

    Our hosts recommended the El Merced brand of mate which is widely available in BA stores (.~$3 to $4 USD for 500 grams). Also just checked and it is~$10.50 on Amazon. Playadito brand was another recommended favorite. Our local guide Cessi told us a funny story of traveling to Italy with 6 kilos of Mate to get her through the ski season and the many questions she received when passing through border control.

    • thethoroughtripper

      Thanks! We recently went to dinner in Park City, Utah. The hostess was drinking mate from a mate. She kept it next to her on the check-in counter. Turns out she was from Argentina and she seemed shocked and then pleased I knew what it was. Her coworker confirmed that she never goes to work without it.

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