From Seed to Drink: Everything About Yerba Mate Production
November 27, 20235 min read
In previous articles, we talked about who drinks mate where we briefly mentioned how yerba mate came to be so popular and how it has influenced present-day life.
As we mentioned in the article on the history of yerba mate, the drink has been part of South Americans for hundreds - if not thousands - of years. Along the way, the different communities developed different techniques to grow, harvest and process yerba mate.
While technology has contributed to the efficiency of the whole production process, historian Javier Ricca has stated that mate’s taste, aroma, and quality has not necessarily improved. According to him, we're probably drinking a mate that is as tasteful as the indigenous communities in the 16th century and earlier.
In this article we'll be covering:
How long does it take to produce yerba mate?
Where does yerba mate grow?
When is it harvested?
How is it dried?
Yerba Mate Planting
In Spanish, ‘yerba’ sounds very similar to ‘hierba’, which means ‘herba’. However, yerba is actually the dry, toasted and shredded leaf of a tree that reaches 10 m high.
Ilex paraguariensis naturally grows in Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay at the latitudes 10°-30° in an area of approximately 540.000 km² (247 acres). Regular high humidity, warm and constant temperature, as well as rich, well-drained soil, are some of the requirements for its growth.
The Spanish noticed that the seeds would not germinate just by planting them. The observed that when birds ate the seeds and digested them, Ilex paraguariensis would easily grow. To create an extensive and more effective cultivated field, these conditions were first encouraged by the taming of different types of birds. Over time, they managed to create a similar effect by washing the seeds repeatedly and let them in warm water before planting them infertile and very humid soil.
Nowadays, small Illex paraguariensis are kept in nursery gardens for their first 9 to 12 month. Then, they are transferred directly to the soil. The plants cannot be harvest until their 4th year, and it is not until the 7th or 8th year that they produce enough leaves to have a satisfactory performance from a commercial point of view.
Different conditions of humidity, altitude, temperature, etc., influence directly on the best time to harvest. According to Gustavo Peckolz, that time is from March to September in Paraguay and the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso; from January to September in the states of Paraná y Santa Catharina; from April to June in the Argentinian region of Misiones; and from March to July in the rest of Argentina and the Rio Grande do Sul.
The harvest is usually done manually by hand, with handsaws, machetes, scissors or electric scissors, which make the process less tiring and faster.
The leaves are collected into nylon tarps and then selected for its size and quality. The bigger ones are discarded, and then the smaller ones are quickly sent to the next stage.
Sapecado and Fogueado: Drying of Yerba Mate
Sapecado and fogueado are the two stages of drying and toasting yerba mate leaves.
The first one, sapecado, is a crucial step that needs to be done within the 24h of the harvest to avoid biological degradation. Right after the harvest, the leaves start to oxidize, losing their color, aroma, and taste.
To avoid that, the leaves quickly dried by exposing them to a very high temperature for a short time. The direct fire is controlled as direct fire or too much heat can burn the leaves, and smoke can affect the taste and smell of the leaves.
The product of a faulty sapecado is a brown and yellow yerba, that was marketed as a lower quality, cheaper alternative, and used for mate cocido. In contrast, the best quality - and strongest - yerba is that with a deep, uniform green color and characteristic aroma.
After the sapecado, the leaves go through another drying stage, called fogueado. At this point, the leaves are either put onto conveyor belts or spread on stationary racks and exposed to the hot air of between 80°C-100°C (176°F-212°F) for a period of 2 to 12 hours.
After the double drying process, which is nowadays done with gas or electricity - the yerba mate has lost 80% of moisture.
Canchado refers to both the process and the product of grinding the dried leaves. In this first stage of milling, the leaves are coarsely cut into squares of 1 cm² to bag and transport them more efficiently.
Yerba Mate Aging or Maturation
The bags of yerba mate are then stored in chambers where temperature, humidity, and light can be regulated. As it happens with wine and other products, yerba mate needs a controlled environment to be properly age and develop a richer blend. This maturation also helps ensure the characteristics and properties of yerba will be kept until it is bought and consumed.
Sources differ on the minimum time necessary for this process. From 9 months to 2 years, they all agree that the longer, the better.
Second Grinding and Design The Blend
In the final stage, the yerba mate is ground again, but this time to considerably smaller pieces that range from dust to a couple of millimeters.
The leaves are classified by type, age, size, etc. and mixed with dried stems and sometimes with dried herbs, to create different blends. At the beginning of the 20th Century, shop keepers had up to 18 different categories for yerba mate, based on how dry they were and the size of the leaves. Today, every brand mix and labels different blends, according to the proportion of stems, yerba dust, leaves and additives (such as herbs, citrus peel, spices, etc), which will define the taste, aroma, and color of the mate.
Yerba mate can be classified following different criteria, but the most basic one is the presence or absence of stems. With stems, it contains at least 65% of dry, toasted and shredded leaves and no more than 35% of stems. Without stems (called in Spanish ‘despalillada’ or ‘despalada’) contains at least 90% of dry, toasted and shredded leaves and no more than 10% of stems.
The yerba mate is regularly checked at the lab throughout the process. Each country has its own policies to control the production and export of yerba mate.
As part of the internal testing, all companies have tasters. A tasters job is to make sure the blends have a well-balanced flavor and that the yerba mate has aged enough to maintain their quality over time.
Yerba mate production is a process that may take at least 5 years from seed to drink. It's tested, controlled, and requires great skill and precision. If you want to see it in action, we encourage you to watchthe following video (in Spanish).