Saudi Aramco World / November-December 1995
By Larry Luxner
Argentine President Carlos Menem drinks it. So do millions of Argentines, Uruguayans and Chileans -- and so, surprisingly, do many Syrians, Lebanese and Arabs of the Gulf region.
What everyone is imbibing is yerba mate, a tea-like decoction born out of the semi-tropical lowlands of South America. First consumed by the Guaraní Indians of Paraguay, commercialized by 17th-century Jesuit missionaries and utilized two centuries later by gauchos in the region's vast pampas, yerba mate's popularity has spawned a $350 million industry employing 400,000 people throughout Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. Surprisingly, some of its biggest devotees are found not in South America, but in places like Damascus, Abu Dhabi and Beirut.
"The first plantations date from the Jesuits," says Angel Rogosinski, controller of Yerba Mate Rosamonte S.A. in the Argentine town of Apostoles, which bills itself the yerba mate capital of the world. "The Jesuits abandoned the land, although after 80 years the industry was reactivated." Since then, farmers have tried to plant yerba mate elsewhere, though specific soil and climate conditions confine its cultivation to small areas in Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay.
"These are the only three countries in the world that produce yerba mate," said José Rogelio Llambi, president of Yerba Mate Asunción S.A. in Paraguay and an expert on the subject.
Yerba mate shrubs are scattered among the imposing Jesuit ruins at San Ignacio Mini, not far from Apostoles. A sign in the small museum there attests to the importance of mate cultivation between 1609, the year the Jesuits first arrived, and 1767, when they were finally expelled by King Charles III of Spain.
Ever since the Jesuits' departure, efforts have been made to plant yerba mate elsewhere, though scientists have concluded the finicky shrub will grow only in locations with iron-rich, acidic soil and a semi-tropical climate with at least 1,500 millimeters of rain per year. In the entire world, such conditions are found only in the Brazilian states of Santa Catalina and Rio Grande do Sul, in Paraguay's Itapua region, and in Argentina's Misiones and Corrientes provinces.
The actual yerba is formed by three components: palo (stem), hoja(leaf) and polvo (powder), which is made in the milling process. According to Llambi -- an Argentine native who lives in Paraguay -- there are more than 200 brands of mate and, as with coffee or tea, preferences vary from one consuming nation to the next.
"Chileans, for example, like only the leaf, which is more expensive than the kind consumed in Syria, containing both palo and polvo. Paraguayans mix the leaf or the poweder with ice water and call it tereré," explains Llambi.
Tastes differ within countries as well. In Argentina, residents of the province of Misiones drink their mate bitter, while enthusiasts in Córdoba supplement their mate with yuyus, or medicinal hergbs, and natives of Buenos Aires add orange peel or sugar.
Even the container for drinking mate varies from one country to another. It is called a calabasa in Argentina and a juampa in Paraguay. In Uruguay -- where the drinking of yerba mate is universal -- people carry their thermos with them to ensure a steady supply of hot water. However, in all Latin American countries the drink itself is carefully sipped through a silver or aluminum bombilla to avoid ingesting the particles.
"It is considered bad manners to offer the first round of yerba mate to a visitor. It is customary for the owner to drink first," says Luis de Bernardi, former manager of the recently disbanded Yerba Mate Regulatory Commission in Buenos Aires.
Until recently, Paraguay had been a bigger producer of yerba mate than Argentina, supplying most of the mate consumed by that country. Paraguay even lent its name to the plant's scientific designation, Ilex paraguariensis. However, economic changes in these two countries over the past decades have resulted in a different scenario. "Today," says Llambi, "anyone in Paraguay who has 1,000 acres of mate is a big producer."
On the other hand, Argentina cultivates some 500,000 acres of yerba mate and produces around 240 million kilograms annually. Around 8% of that total is exported, mainly to Arab countries whose residents have taken a strong liking to this herbal drink.
In fact, Argentina's biggest customer for yerba mate last year was Syria, which bought 5.8 million kilograms of mate valued at around $7.4 million. Uruguay, which boasts the highest per-capita consumption of yerba mate in the world, is also an important customer. Other large importers of Argentine mate include Chile, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
"During the time the Ottoman Empire ruled Syria, Lebanon and Egypt, many Arabs emigrated to Argentina, and there they learned to drink yerba mate," explained Juan Carlos Peña, director of Cruz de Malta S.A., which handles 70% of Argentina's yerba mate exports to the Arab world. "They worked hard, made money and returned to the Middle East, keeping the custom of drinking yerba mate."
Adds Abel Actis, manager of Establecimiento Las Marias S.A., Argentina's largest producer: "When the immigrants who lived here returned to Syria, the only thing typical of Argentina they took back with them was yerba mate."
According to experts, the Argentine variety of Ilex paraguariensis is so prized in Syria that some inferior mate from Paraguay and Brazil is falsely labeled in Arabic to make it seems as though it comes from Argentina. Brands that have been counterfeited by Damascus packing houses include Piporen, Canaria, Jabal, Lamis, Union and Camilia.
"The Arabs are particular, and always give us good business. We don't know how much more we could export to the Middle East if the product were not being falsified," remarks De Bernardi. "However, what interests us is not only the Middle East, but also the European market. Our future intention is to export to Germany, Italy and Spain. There are Italians who have begun to drink yerba mate in bombillas, which before had been considered unhygenic. We think our exports could be much bigger, because the world market is virgin. Many people don't know what yerba mate is."
In the United States,, some $400,000 worth of yerba mate is consumed annually, mainly by Argentines living in New York, Miami and Los Angeles. One firm, Cawy Bottling Co., has even begun canning Materva, a carbonated drink made from yerba mate extract. In addition, more and more, yerba mate is starting to turn up at health-food stores conscious of the shrub's many attributes.
Indeed, mate's advantages -- it calms the nerves while providing a healthy dose of vitamins, with much less caffeine than either tea or coffee -- seem to compensate for the difficulties and added expense of getting it. "The gaucho lived on wheat and water, and by drinking mate," said De Bernardi. "Scientists began to study the plant and found it contained vitamins, proteins and minerals. It has a high concentration of vitamins C, B1 and B2, carbohydrates, phosphorous, iron and calcium."
Ironically, yerba mate never caught on in Spain -- homeland of the Jesuit missionaries who cultivated it -- though in France and Belgium, it is consumed like tea and marketed as the "elixir of the Jesuits" for its energizing properties. The shrub itself seems to be pretty energetic too. "You plant it once and it lives forever," says Rogosinski. "It is not affected by rain or plague. We have 100-year-old plants still in production."
At the Rosamonte factory, which employs some 200 workers, Rogosinski showed how mate leaves fresh from the fields are passed rapidly over a fire for 20 to 30 seconds to remove humidity. From there, they go to the secado, a more indirect fire lasting 14 to 16 hours. The next process is known as the canchadora, where leaves are cut and packed in 50-kilogram jute sacks. There they sit for between six months and two years in a process called estacionamiento.
The processed and aged mate is then sorted into pre-labeled packets of 250 grams, 500 grams, 1 kilo and 2 kilos and trucked to Buenos Aires for distribution throughout the country and overseas. Currently, prices average around $1.40 per kilo.
Despite efforts to market Argentine yerba mate overseas, there is still little demand for the plant outside the Middle East and southern Latin America. In 1992, the government of Carlos Menem -- himselrf of partly Middle Eastern ancestry -- disbanded the Yerba Mate Regulatory Commission, whose purpose had been to protect the country's 14,000 yerbateros, or mate producers, by limiting cultivation. Now, as the Argentine maté supply rises in a deregulated economy, many in the industry are increasingly looking to the more lucrative, higher-priced export market for an economic lifeline -- and looking harder at the Middle East.