History of
Yerba Mate
Yerba Mate was a staple food of the Guarani people, a group of South American people that still live in northeastern Argentina (Corrientes, Misiones, Formosa and part of the Chaco province), southwestern Brazil and Paraguay, southeastern Bolivia, and parts of Uruguay. In pre-Hispanic times, the Guarani consumed yerba mate as a beverage. They drank the tea leaves of the Caa in a clay pot without a filter straw for sipping, straining the leaves between their teeth. They sucked the remaining leaves in their mouths or drank the cold infusion through hollow reeds. They also had the habit of chewing these leaves, especially during long walks through the forest to collect and transport heavy bags of yerba mate. However, this tradition has long been abandoned.

In the Guarani culture, yerba mate had a social role beyond its nutritional benefits. It was an object of worship and ritual, used as a kind of currency for trading with other pre-Hispanic peoples. It is also believed that after the creation of different gods, the Guarani people gathered together to drink yerba mate.

The Spanish settlers learned to drink mate with the Guarani people, calling it “Herb of Paraguay” without knowing that the leaves came from a tree that grew in the local forest.

At the end of the sixteenth century the first Jesuits arrived to evangelize the Guarani. At first, the Jesuits considered it dangerous to drink mate. Later on, however, yerba mate was accepted and its use was encouraged as a solution to the problem of alcohol abuse in the reservations.

Yerba mate evolved to become the main source of income of the Jesuits. In 1645 permission was granted to market the product, and by the end of the XVII century they began to cultivate yerba in the vicinity of the reservations. The Jesuits created “yerbales orchards,” and thus paid tribute to the king of Spain.

By the mid-eighteenth century mate had been introduced to all social classes, although each group has its own particularities for consumption of the yerba. When mate began to be consumed in the households of Buenos Aires, each family had a person in charge of preparing mate. Some families would even have two—one for sweet mate and one for bitter mate. The sale of yerba mate had become a booming business when in 1767 Charles III expelled the Jesuits by royal decree. The yerba mate fields created by them were slowly abandoned, and crops were lost. Yerba mate was left to be collected by the locals in the jungle, where it continued to grow spontaneously. Then at the beginning of the twentieth century, yerba mate plantings were rediscovered in San Ignacio, the former settlement of the Jesuits.