Uruguay’s National Drink – Yerba Mate (mah-tay) Part II

(This article is Part II of a series of articles on Uruguay’s National Drink – Yerba Mate. The previous article ended by describing how the cebador prepares the mate by pouring in the mate leaves, pouring water, and inserting the drinking tube “la bombilla” into the leaves.)

The cebador is responsible to test the first brew, making certain that it is the right
temperature and free of excessive particulate matter.  Once she is certain that everything is as it should be, she refills the gourd with water, causing a gentle cascade of leaves into the fresh water, thus supplying the brew with a fresh batch of leaves.  She then passes it to the person on her left.  That person then partakes of the rich brew, not taking too long, knowing that there are others waiting to enjoy it.  Unlike in the U.S., where it is considered to be a sign of rudeness, she should drink it until a slurping sound is heard a couple of times.  When handing the gourd back to the cebador, if she would like to partake of the mate in a subsequent round, she does not thank the cebador.  If, however, she has thoroughly enjoyed the brew and is quite satisfied with her experience, she thanks the cebador, which is the sign that she will not partake of any subsequent brews.  This intimate social process continues until everyone present has had their opportunity to partake of the brew.

Like most other Americas, at first, we were a little reluctant to take part in this social ritual.  Naturally, we thought, “Why don’t we all get a separate gourd?  Why does everyone have to use the same bombilla?  Isn’t it unsanitary?”  It took us a while to overcome the intense individualism that is such an integral part of U.S. culture.  The Uruguayans introduced us to something that we had never experienced before.  True fellowship with those we call our friends goes beyond merely extending our hospitality to them.  It takes us deeper and engages us in mutuality and vulnerability.   We don’t just give refreshments to our guests, but, rather, we all share in the one refreshment.  Because no one has their own gourd, everyone is drawn into the singular experience of all who are present.  Everyone must display consideration and courtesy being conscious of the desire of the others to enjoy the brew.  While sharing yerba mate in this way takes more time, more importantly, it gives us more time to be together and to talk with each other.  On the other hand, just as everyone gets an opportunity to enjoy the brew, everyone also gets an opportunity to be silent and to listen while the others are conversing.  That gives everyone an opportunity to think about what is being said and how they might contribute to the conversation.

These characteristics of the yerba mate culture help to make Uruguayans who they are and who we are becoming.  We are thankful that we are learning more about this instrument for enhancing our social interaction.  Hopefully, the next time we have the opportunity to be together, you will see that we are more inclined to pause to interact with you, to listen as you speak, and to share in a meaningful way in what is going on in your lives.  Maybe, we will even be able to share a mate together.  Not only will we enjoy a yummy treat, but also a yummy time with each other!

  • Jorge Bermudez

    Congratulations on your perception on the subtleties of our mate culture (you may say in some cases is even a mate cult!).
    Uruguay has the higher level of consumption of yerba mate per capita in the world, by the way.
    Coca Cola enter the market last year with it own brand. Crazy, isn`t it?

  • bradandlindsey

    Jorge-Congratulations to all Uruguayans for having yet another astoundingly interesting cultural item that can now be exported to the world (or simply enjoyed in Uruguay, Argentina, and others). My thinking is that Mate drinking is such a way of life in Uruguay that calling it a cult would seem to marginalize it rather than embracing it. It makes much more sense to me to drink some mate rather than buying a coke in Uruguay. I keep thinking of how to export it, to make things like Mate Lattes, and other potential products to better introduce it to the world. What ideas do you have?

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