Mate is a unique beverage. Think about it — we’re drinking herbal infusion through metal straw with filter on the end out of a dried squash! Tea and coffee drinker, for instance, prepare their beverages differently — they don’t use bombillas and calabash gourds, nor do they create a so-called mountain. Even with those rich and fermented pu-erh teas that you’re supposed to brew several times, you just fill the cup with hot water over and over until it becomes tasteless. Why then mold and maintain the mountain of yerba? Isn’t it pointless? Well, a lot of Argentines and Paraguayans will agree with this statement and will consider building the mountain redundant and unnecessary, but my experience tells me that it is far from that. In this article I’ll give you my reasons on why should always create a mountain of yerba while preparing mate, and show you how to maintain it.
Unlike tea, yerba mate is a more potent herb, both in terms of its taste and effects. You don’t need to steep yerba mate for a few minutes like you do with tea — mate supposed to be sipped instantly after the refill, which is enough for a full-flavored infusion. Brewing mate like tea will yield in an unpleasantly bitter and overly strong beverage.
Also unlike tea, when we’re preparing mate we fill 2/3 to 3/4 of the vessel with yerba. That’s why it is crucial to create a mountain — infusing all that yerba with water will also result in a drink that is too harsh. Mountain will expose only a part of yerba for the infusion, making each sip balanced and flavorful without going over the top.
Why not add less yerba mate to the gourd, you may ask? Well, if you, say, fill only half of the gourd with yerba, it will not have enough “mass” not to collapse, forcing you again to infuse all that yerba with water, and 1/2 of the gourd is still enough to be super bitter and strong! You can also add just one or two teaspoons of yerba to your vessel and fill the rest with water. Congratulations, you have made mate cocido! It will be decent and even delicious but only for a few refills — if you want to continue drinking it you’ll need to discard washed out yerba mate, replace it with fresh one, and add more water, and then repeat it several more times, which to me sounds much more cumbersome than simply refilling the gourdful of yerba with water and occasionally molding the mountain.
Even if you don’t mind an overly strong and unbalanced taste of mate prepared without a mountain, do not expect it to last for too long. It’s really simple — the more yerba is exposed to water at once, the quicker it releases its flavors, the sooner it becomes lavado. On the other hand, when you’re building a mountain only a part of yerba will be exposed to water. When you drink such mate, water will not penetrate all the mountain straight away, and you will gradually wash it out in a longer span of time and larger quantities of refills and water, getting the best durability out of your favorite yerba mate.
With a quality bombilla and a coarse-cut con palo yerba mate you will never encounter clogging even if you completely flood your mate. The world of Uruguayan and Brazilian yerbas is unique and fascinating, and the only way of enjoying it hassle-free is to properly mold and maintain the mountain. However, Uruguayan yerbas and Brazilian ervas are usually very fine and powdery, and flooding such mate will turn it into concrete-like swampy substance that is guaranteed to completely clog your bombilla, even if it is a large bomba with good filter.
Now that we understand why to build and maintain the mountain in the first place, it is time to go through the tools of choice. Not all bombillas, gourds and yerbas were created equal! Some of them are more preferable as far as the mountain of yerba is concerned.
In order to mold the mountain of yerba you’ll want something flat rather than rounded. You will be tamping, scraping and pulling the yerba against the gourd, so the best choice in these scenarios is a spoon bombilla due to its flat shaft and flat slightly bent filter that will especially come in handy when pulling up the mountain of yerba.
Slotted bombilla is also a good choice, as long as it is flat, but most of the slotted bombillas are not as curved as some spoon bombillas are, making them a less ideal choice for pulling up the mountain.
There is a reason why Brazilian cuias and Uruguayan porongos have such a wide opening — maintaining the mountain of yerba is crucial for these regional types, and the more space you have to operate in the more easy and fast it becomes, making molding the mountain a less distraction from the actual process of drinking and enjoying mate.
Here’s the paradox — while powdery yerbas are the most challenging for novice materos, they are also the best to learn and build up your molding techniques. The more dust yerba has, the more pliable and moldable it will be, the more easy it will hold mountain of yerba in place.
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Uruguayan yerbas and Brazilian ervas are the most obvious choice here, however, I personally believe that even Argentine and Paraguayan yerbas should have a balanced amount of powder to add body to the taste and make molding of mountain much easier. Rosamonte Tradicional is a good pick as it is quite dusty for an Argentine yerba mate.
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The most important technique for building and maintaining the mountain of yerba is molding. Molding is the first thing you do after filling the gourd with yerba mate, shaking it and soaking the yerba with room temperature water. You would also want to occasionally mold the mountain every few refills to keep it in shape.
Also done initially during the preparation of mate, pulling up the mountain creates a pocket around the filter of the bombilla and allows it to sink a bit deeper and sit sturdier against the mountain. Throughout the duration of drinking, mountain surely but slowly slips down, so in order to bring it back to its shape and recreate the pocket for the filter of bombilla, pulling up technique should be performed occasionally every 5 or so refills.
When mate starts to become tasteless and washed out, it is time to turn it. To turn yerba mate means to move the mountain to the opposite side, revealing the dry yerba that is good to go for many more refills. Turning the yerba allows to prolong the duration of drinking, make mate more balanced and use it as efficiently as possible without wasting any yerba.
Perfecting the art of maintaining the mountain of yerba is what makes matero a true cebador. It is more than a useful trick — it is a part of an elaborated ceremony that grounds your mind, simultaneously focusing and relaxing you. Do you find the ritual fun or superfluous? Are you creating and maintaining the mountain of yerba? Do you have more techniques for building and molding the mountain? Share it down below in comments.
Mountain of yerba
Turning the yerba