Chimarrão or maté: a personal drink of South Americans

For years I have been very curious about maté, a traditional South American beverage. One that you can sip hot or cold, day or night. I’m sure you have seen celebrities like Lionel Messi, James Hetfield, and the Pope himself holding that pretty wooden cup with a metal straw, drinking maté. So what’s so special about maté or, as Brazilians call it, chimarrão?

From a tree to tea

Ilex paraguariensis

Chimarrão (in Portuguese), also known as mate or erva-maté or yerba maté, comes from leaves of a local tree called Ilex paraguariensis as opposed to traditional tea coming from a tea shrub Camellia sinensis. The maté tree grows in the southern states of Brazil (Santa Catarina, Parana, and Rio Grande do Sul), Uruguay, Paraguay, Argentina, and Chile. Hence, so many drink names! Generally, maté tends to be very bitter compared to the taste of regular tea.

Being one of the most popular beverages in South America, maté dates back to centuries of cultivation and consumption by its native Americans. Today locals love it for its antioxidant and energy-boosting characteristics. So maté can be a healthier alternative to coffee, too, appreciated for its slow-release caffeine.

It’s also a social, yet personal drink: it’s common to see people take their drinking sets with a thermos of hot water to enjoy maté in public spaces.

Chimarrão demo and tasting in South Brazil

Finally, here I am tasting my first maté prepared by a gaúcha directly in front of my eyes! 🙂 When I knew I will be traveling to Rio Grande do Sul, Matería Capitão Rodrigo in the resort town of Gramado was on my to-see list. A specialized chimarrão shop that offers first-hand experience of the local culture would be a shame to miss!

As we talk and wait for our maté to be prepared, I learn that natural maté – one that comes in leaves – contains little caffeine whereas the same beverage made from grounded leaves is much stronger and more stimulating. Interestingly, South Brazilians drink natural maté and don’t use sugar with it. In Uruguay, Paraguay, and Chile locals prefer a stronger beverage, so they choose a powder version.

You can also find toasted maté that is commonly sold in supermarkets and grocery stores. However, the quality is lower and it is advised to use it for a cold beverage or hot and then cooled with ice. Matte Leão is a famous local tea brand selling numerous options of flavored and non-flavored, bagged, and loose maté in Brazil. Cold maté is an indispensable beach drink for cariocas (locals in Rio de Janeiro) that beach vendors sell every day. I wrote about it back in 2015 after my trip to this marvelous city.

How to prepare chimarrão

  1. Fill the cup with maté leaves “to the neck” of your cup
  2. Use something flat like a plate or coaster to turn your maté cup upside down and lean it to one side
  3. Fill your cup from that side with 70-90 degrees of water
  4. Insert the straw and pronto!

Maté straw is something you would want to have. It comes with an integrated filter on one end to not let leaves through when you drink. The traditional cup or gourd is made of calabash wood and after each use has to be hand-washed and air-dried. So here is your answer, just in case like me, you were wondering why you can’t find maté served in cafés or restaurants. It’s a personal drink!

It’s a social drink, too. When families and friends meet, often they share the same gourd by passing it around (some gourds come in “family sizes”!). So drinking maté in South America is a true cultural ritual – it’s about old traditions that made it to last, and it’s about a socializing state of mind to slow down modern life. And yes, a maté emoji now exists, too 🧉!

Uma velha tradicão da região que rima com fogão, reunião, pinga ou chimarrão – é
b ã o.

The above Brazilian Portuguese quote I’ve found in a local book plays with words ending -ão to say that “an old regional tradition that rhimes with stove, get-together, cachaça, and chimarrão is g o o d.”

P.S. Here in Rio Grande do Sul I also spotted a specially designed chimarrão recycle bin in one of the parks we visited (see picture below). What a great environmental gesture! Bonus point – it comes with a hot and cold water dispenser.

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