All it took was one sip of yerba maté that would lead Uruguayan-born Sydneysider Andrea Castro to switch up her preferred morning brew.
"When I was 21, I travelled to South America where I drank yerba maté and learnt all its strict preparation traditions with my grandfather. It changed my life. I felt focused, alive and full of energy," Castro tells SBS Food.
It may sound like a miracle beverage with Castro's glowing endorsement, but what exactly is the much-loved South American drink, yerba maté?
A brief history of yerba maté
Castro isn't the only fan; South Americans have been drinking the beverage for centuries. According to Britannica, yerba maté – known as 'mate' in Spanish and Portuguese-speaking countries – is brewed from the dried leaves of the Ilex paraguariensis plant. It contains caffeine properties which explains why it's a much-loved social drink morning, noon and night in various. It's traditionally served in a gourd (a round-shaped vessel) with the leaves infused in hot water and consumed through a bombilla (metal straw).
The greenish drink's origins date back to ancient Guaraní times, the first Indigenous group to discover the plant as a nutrition and energy source. In the sixteenth century, Jesuit missionaries in Latin America realised the plant's stimulating benefits to the body. They started cultivating it for broader consumption in areas suited to the plant's specific soil and climate requirements across the continent.
"It changed my life. I felt focused, alive and full of energy."
Since then, parts of the continent – Paraguay, Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina – have been hooked on the herbal brew morning. But not all Yerba maté tastes the same.
"Yerba maté has a different taste depending on what region it is from, how it is grown, dried, blended and prepared," Castro says.
"Its traditional method will have you drinking for hours."
This drink is a way of life in some parts of South America. Served in a gourd with a metal straw (a bomba or bombilla). This super strong tea is an acquired taste. Brewed from the dried leaves and small stems of the native "Yerba Mate" tree, its ancient, medicinal properties make it hugely popular.
In the pursuit of perfect yerba maté
Castro says a conversation with her grandfather sparked her pursuit of learning more about the ancient beverage that would soon take over her life.
"He was very articulate and was very fussy about the art of preparing a great Yerba maté."
She became curious about the properties of Yerba maté, but could only find one article about it on the internet back then.
"I still have it printed out as a memory. There I started my quest and the hobby that would soon take over my life. I went to the state library looking for all scientific and botanical information and researched day and night."
The research soon went beyond the library. Castro booked a ticket back to South America to learn more about the drink she had promised to her grandfather that she would never stop drinking.
"I travelled to South America visiting yerba maté farms and drinking with guachos (cowboys) and the Native Indians, and came to appreciate its old traditions."
She soon brought back custom-grown, dried and blended yerba maté for her family and friends in Australia to try, much to the delight of many.
"I realised that people really loved my yerba maté and called it My Great Mate!" Castro says.
The demand from her family and friends led Castro to start selling yerba maté online and in some stores and markets around Sydney nearly 20 years ago. Five years later, she opened up the world's first yerba maté store/café, My Yerba Mate World. The store stocks over 140 varieties of yerba maté, with the Argentinean and Uruguayan yerbas the most sought out.
But for Castro, the store is not just about selling yerba maté. "I love sharing my knowledge on its traditions and history and teaching others how to consume it."
And when it comes to making yerba mate at home, Castro shares a hot tip. "Never ever drink above 80 degrees, always put a layer of room temperature water to coat the yerba, and don't fiddle with the bombilla!"
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