What is the ‘mate tea’ that Lionel Messi is obsessed with? This article will take you through the history of Argentina’s national drink.

There are two famous local specialities drinks in South America, beloved for their taste and energising effects, which have gained popularity beyond the continent since the colonial era following Columbus. One is the well-loved hot chocolate that is enjoyed today, and the other is the lesser-known mate tea. 

Outside of South America, those familiar with mate tea can be divided into three groups: South American travellers, Argentine football fans, or book enthusiasts of Jorge Luis Borges. It could be considered one of the most representative drinks of South America and an integral part of its culture.

In Argentina, gauchos are passionate about drinking mate tea, which is not only their evening pastime but also a way to gather energy and warmth. After a day of activities on horseback, they gather around a campfire, and nothing drives away the cold and fatigue better than brewing a pot of mate tea.

The main ingredient of it is yerba mate (Ilex Paraguayensis), which is primarily found in Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Argentina. The Paraguay holly resembles an orange tree, with shiny silver leaves, small greenish flowers, and finally, purple-black berries enclosing hard seeds.

yerba mate

When the colonisers arrived in South America, they discovered the enormous commercial value of mate tea but struggled to cultivate it artificially. The hard shell of the Paraguay holly seeds made germination difficult, even with the use of knives. The Jesuit priests who accompanied the colonisers persevered in their research and found that the wild holly trees were able to germinate successfully due to the help of birds.

The fruits consumed by local birds lost their hard shells in the acidic environment of their digestive system, making the seeds much easier to germinate. The priests also employed chemical methods to soften the seed shells, successfully cultivating Paraguay holly. 

The harvested leaves would be brought back to the processing site, dried, and cut into small particles. Sometimes, the locals would smoke from underground fires to smoke the leaves. Unsmoked mate leaves would be deep green in colour, while smoked ones would have an added layer of brown.

The powdered mate tea would be stored in wooden barrels for local consumption and to be supplied to enthusiasts worldwide.

In Tristes Tropiques, Claude Lévi-Strauss describes the process of preparing it, “place a handful of mate powder into cold water and boil it rapidly until the water boils. It is crucial to extinguish the fire as soon as the water boils, or else the taste of mate tea will be lost completely. This method produces mate tea with a deep green colour and a thick texture, resembling a strong cup of coffee.”

“Those who do not enjoy the bitter taste of mate tea, can follow the example of Paraguayan women and prepare sweet mate (maté doce).” Claude added, “Mix mate powder with sugar, roast it over high heat, then pour boiling water and filter it after it is steeped. However, the most popular way locally is called ‘chimarrão’, where the Gauchos form a circle around a fire. The person in charge of brewing sits in the circle and fills a gourd-shaped container with two-thirds of mate powder, then inserts a spherical filter spoon at the bottom. After filling it with hot water, the mate tea is passed among everyone.”

In the past, there have been concerns about the safety of it because the South Americans who enjoyed drinking it had a higher incidence of oesophagal cancer. In recent years, more in-depth research has found that this is due to the habit of drinking scalding hot mate tea, which damages the oesophagal mucosa. If it is consumed at an appropriate temperature, there are no specific health risks. Similar to tea, mate tea contains caffeine and can provide a certain level of alertness. 

Lionel Messi drinking mate tea

South American football fans may have witnessed Luis Suárez and Lionel Messi sharing a cup of mate tea, and it is said that the Argentina football team brings several tens of kilograms of it when travelling abroad.