My first experience drinking mate
From all these years that I have been drinking mate I never heard that somebody had a neutral first experience — people either love their first sip, or absolutely hate it. In my case it was the latter — I still remember that first bitter and smoky sip of Rosamonte Tradicional that tasted like somebody brewed a cigarette. Since then my palate has evolved to appreciate this yerba mate a lot, but initially it took me two weeks to get adjusted to the taste of mate. The only thing that kept me going was curiosity, as I’ve seen so many people genuinely enjoying mate, making me wonder — what am I missing? If you have had the similar experience and doubt that you’ll ever like the taste of mate, hang on and I will give you some advices on how to get used to the flavor and start enjoying it.
What affects the taste of yerba mate
But first, let’s try to understand what makes yerba mate taste the way it does. As with tea or coffee, the flavors that develop in yerba mate depend on how the plant was treated starting from the small seed all the way to the final product, ready to be packaged and enjoyed.
Growing yerba mate
The location of yerba mate plants plays a big role not only in the final taste, but also in caffeine content and other properties that it will have. The main variables here are the environment, soil composition, exposure to sun and rain, and how the plant was taken care of and fertilized during its growing.
For instance, yerba mate that is grown on a sunny slope of the hill will most likely develop a high amount of caffeine as well as more light sweet hay flavors. On the other hand yerba mate that was grown in the shadows of the rainforest will be less caffeinated with more earthy and grassy flavors imparted to it.
The other thing that affects the taste of yerba mate is whether it was grown organically or not — natural fertilizers, like green manure and compost usually translate into more vegetative and green taste that makes organic yerbas stand out from the rest in terms of flavor.
Drying yerba mate
After the yerba mate plant has grown enough to be used for further production, some of the branches with leaves are being cut off and prepared for drying. Many yerba mate manufacturers use this step as a chance to impart their signature flavor profile. Remember my first experience with Rosamonte Tradicional? Well, one of the things that they do to create that smoky and bold taste is using a barbacuá drying method, which basically means that yerba mate is being dried over the open fire. This technique is particularly popular in Paraguay, but we’ll touch the topic of regional differences a bit later.
In general, most of the yerba mate is dried with some sorts of a heat source, usually trying not to expose it directly to the fire or smoke. However, some brands, like Kraus for instance, especially pride themselves on producing yerba mate that is completely unsmoked because it is dried naturally by the air in special rooms. This way of drying allows Kraus not only to market their yerba mate as an even healthier option free of any PAHs, but it also preserves more of those green and grassy flavors of a raw yerba mate.
Aging yerba mate
After the yerba mate is dried it may or may not be aged. What is aging exactly? It is a combination of fermentation and oxidation processes that alter the taste of yerba mate and allow it to develop complex and interesting flavors that are not present in non-aged yerba mate. During aging, which usually lasts up to 3 years, deeper flavor notes like dry fruits, prunes and figs are being developed.
The cool thing about yerba mate is that it does not require aging to be complex and interesting. For instance, Brazilian erva mate usually looks bright green and very fresh because it is milled and packed no longer than 15 days after it has been picked and dried, which gives it a whole different grassy flavor profile that is sometimes as complex as aged yerba mate.
Generally speaking, aging does not necessarily affect the complexity of yerba mate as much as it lets flavors develop and change from green and light to more brown and deep.
Grinding yerba mate
The cut of yerba mate does not particularly affect the taste, but it does change the mouthfeel and body of mate. In most cases the powder content in the cut of yerba mate is directly proportional to its body — the dustier it is the more full-bodied will be the mate. Stems on the other hand act inversely — the more stems are in the cut of the yerba the lighter mate will be.
Some people also find that stems add more sweetness to the taste of the mate, however in my experience there is no correlation between them. There are con palo yerba mates that are not very sweet, and at the same time there are naturally sweet despaladas, so even if stems do affect the sweetness of mate, I think there are other much more influential things, like climate and soil, that contribute to the taste.
Regional varieties of yerba mate
Now that we’ve covered what affects the taste of mate, let’s talk about what to expect from different regional varieties of yerba mate. Despite that it’s coming from the same plant, ilex paraguariensis, yerba mate can taste drastically different depending on the region that it has been grown and produced at.
Argentine yerba mate
To many people all over the world Argentine yerba mate is an epitome of that “classic” mate taste because for most of them Argentine yerba mate was the first one that they tried. I too started with Argentine yerba mates and in general would consider most of them more friendly to beginners than other regional varieties. Of course there are very complex, bold and intimidating yerbas from Argentina, but the variety that this country offers in terms of complexity and flavors make some of these yerbas perfect to start with.
The variety of cuts and drying methods used for Argentine yerba mates lets you explore all the range of flavors from light, sweet, fruity and hay-like to much stronger, bitter, earthy, leathery, and tart. You will find green grassy and organic Argentine yerbas as well as toasted and smoked ones, almost akin to coffee. The average Argentine yerba though is quite balanced, moderately bitter and earthy, moderately sweet, slightly woodsy and herb-like. If you want to explore the vast world of Argentine yerba mates I recommend you to read some of my reviews.
Paraguayan yerba mate
People in Paraguay like to drink cold-brewed mate — tereré — so Paraguayan manufacturers design their yerba mate in such a way that it could be infused even in ice-cold water. That’s why Paraguayan yerba mate is bolder and stronger than Argentine yerba mate.
You’ll find an average Paraguayan yerba mate to have much more “brown” taste — less earthy and herbal, but more tobaccoey, woodsy, peppery and almost cardboard-like in flavor. Often, yerba mates from Paraguay are also smoked during drying which helps to bring out more flavor out of it, sometimes making Paraguayan yerba mate too overwhelming to enjoyably drink it with hot water. I like to compare drinking traditional hot mate made from Paraguayan yerba to drinking scotch whisky as I find that oaky smoky flavors create remarkably similar tasting experience between both of these drinks.
In terms of cut, Paraguayan yerbas usually have quite high powder content which also adds to the boldness and fullness of the body, as well as richness of the flavor. You can read my reviews of Paraguayan yerbas for a more comprehensive descriptions.
Uruguayan yerba mate
The resulting product is somewhat similar to an average Argentine yerba mate in terms of flavor, but the fine dusty cut creates a unique tasting experience, which is usually more silky, syrupy, malty, chocolatey and creamy.
It doesn’t mean though that there are no smoky and bitter yerba mates from Uruguay — actually, the velvety and smooth mouthfeel created by the fine cut allows Uruguayan manufacturers to pull off bolder and more “masculine” flavors in their yerba mate that feel more pleasant and balanced, compared to a more edgy and harsh Paraguayan yerbas. I reviewed couple of great examples or Uruguayan yerba mates, so check them out to see what I’m talking about.
Brazilian erva mate
Yerba mate from Brazil, or erva mate as they call it in Portugese, is the most different of them all. Even more fine than Uruguayan yerba, non-aged, bright green, grassy and fresh, Brazilian erva mate looks and tastes quite similar to Japanese matcha tea.
Apart from the chlorophyllic and raw taste, Brazilian erva mate is often characterized by its natural sweetness, tasting almost like a sweet pea. Also, despite the fine and non-aged cut most of the chimarrão tastes quite milky, but not as thick and syrupy as Uruguayan mate, and very light-bodied, which can be explained by the heavy presence of stems. For more in-depth flavor profile please read some of my reviews of Brazilian erva mate.
Why people like the taste of mate
When I had my first sip of mate I wondered why so many people are so passionate about it. Smoky, earthy, leathery and woodsy notes do not sound very appetizing, but the truth is that a lot of other gourmet things, like whiskeys, wines, teas, coffees and cigars can be described in a similar fashion. People like enjoying gourmet products for the complexity and unique experience that they offer and mate fits right in with this company, providing distinctive taste and kaleidoscope of flavors as well as a huge array of variables that make each yerba mate unique, ready to be discovered and explored.
Don’t like the taste of mate? Here’s what to do
Mate is an acquired taste, and if you are still doubting whether you like it or not, I will rephrase a famous response that whisky enthusiasts give in this case: “You just haven’t yet found the yerba mate that you like.” When you finally try yerba mate that suits your preferences you’ll know what I’m talking about! That’s why I am so passionate about writing comprehensive and descriptive reviews that help people make decisions, find yerbas that they love and discover new ones to try to expand their palate and enjoy drinking mate even more.
As I mentioned earlier, I did not like mate the first time I tried it. Now, I love it and drink it every single day. What advice can I give? First off, refrain from any bold and smoky yerba mates, at least in the beginning. I think it’s best to start with a simple and sweet Argentine yerba mate, like Playadito Con Palo, Piporé Con Palo or Nobleza Gaucha Tradicional.
After a disastrous first try, I found that my local tea shop carried a starter pack of 5 different yerba mate samplers, 100 grams each. I tried them all to find the yerba mate that I can tolerate the most. That yerba mate for me was Piporé Con Palo, so I purchased a 1kg bag and drank it every day for two weeks, until I realized that I genuinely enjoy the taste and overall experience.
I would suggest to follow my path — find out if you can get a similar starter pack of different samplers, or go ahead and order couple of different yerbas online — most of the biggest brands in yerba mate industry sell 250g packs, making it easy to try multiple different yerbas without a huge commitment. Find out what yerba mate you can tolerate the most, stick to it and I guarantee you that in a couple of weeks you will fall in love with that beautiful drink.
In conclusion, I want to warn you about some of the common pitfalls and bad advice that you may receive when trying mate for the first time. First off, always prepare mate correctly and traditionally, meaning that you fill up the gourd 2/3 to 3/4 with yerba mate and drink it through bombilla. Some people may suggest that in order to avoid an overly bitter and strong mate beginners should fill only 1/4 of the gourd with yerba mate, or even use french press. In reality, this will result in mate “soup” that is unbalanced and unpleasant to drink. Properly prepared mate is designed to be balanced during the whole drinking session, as the water touches the yerba mate partially, eventually using it all over the time as you pour more and more water.
And finally — don’t sweeten your mate if it is too bitter! Yerba mates that I recommend for beginners are already naturally sweet, and while they still may taste bitter to an unprepared palate, instead try to eat something sweet along with drinking. Dulce de leche is a very popular dessert in Argentina and South America and goes really well with mate. I particularly find a combination of sweet alfajores with bitter mate super delicious and yummy.
Mate may seem intimidating and exotic, but in reality it is a very unique and interesting drink that is extremely rewarding to explore, offers so much variety and in my opinion is as gourmet as fine spirits, teas and coffees. Are you still curious about tasting mate, or have already tried it? If so, what was your first experience?