As an Englishman it always confuses people when I say I don’t drink tea. “But you’re British!” they protest. Well sorry to ruin your stereotype. I don’t drink coffee either and that really messes people up. “Well what do you have with breakfast?” As difficult as it seems for some people to understand, it’s nothing compared to the complexity of drinking maté.
For those of you unfamiliar with it, maté (pronounced ‘ma-tay’) is a hot drink made from mixing dried yerba mate leaves with hot water and is most common around Paraguay, Argentina and Uruguay. It is drunk from a gourd (a type of hollow wooden cup) using a metal straw, or bombilla.
I first came across the popular South American beverage when I was travelling by bus in Paraguay. I noticed the flask of the guy sitting next to me and how he regularly poured himself a drink during the journey. Over the next few weeks I saw it more and more. People from all walks of life and all ages sharing a drink either alone or with friends, always accompanied by the small wooden gourd. The more I travelled in the area the more I learnt about it.
Maté originated in either Argentina or Uruguay. Both countries claim to have first invented it and have their own stories as further proof. It’s so popular that even top football stars such as Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez are regularly seen drinking it. Everyone, young or old, rich or poor, can be seen sitting around and enjoying a drink.
It’s a highly sociable activity. Groups of teenagers will sit together and share a drink while they chat, and a group of pensioners are just as likely to do the same. However, drinking maté is accompanied by a whole host of complicated rules. It’s so much more than just a casual drink with your friends. The first time I was offered a drink I unknowingly broke at least half the rules.
So, in order to help you avoid any future South American social problems, I’ll explain a few of them for you now.
Don’t touch the straw
When you’re handed the cup the straw should be facing you ready to drink. Therefore, you don’t need to actually touch the straw before you drink.
Don’t say thank you
This is a difficult one (I’m British. It’s just natural). Both when receiving the drink and when handing it back, you never say thank you. Even the pourer doesn’t use polite phrases.
Drink everything and drink fast
You’re supposed to drink all of the contents in the gourd when it’s handed to you. Something I definitely didn’t do the first time as I handed it back after a short sip. You’re also meant to drink it quickly, which resulted in me burning my tongue a few times as the water is really hot. You drink everything until you hear the slurping noise as you finish the last remaining dregs from the bottom of the cup. The one time this is actually a good noise. The slurping sound indicates that you’ve drunk everything and nothing is left over, which could spread germs to the next person. (They’re oddly hygiene conscious over a practice that involves sharing a straw)
Pass the cup in the same order
The drinkers always drink in the same order, with the cup being passed from the pourer to the first drinker (without saying ‘thank you’), then the second and so on until it goes around again. It doesn’t just depend on who’s thirsty apparently.
The same person pours every time
The person who mixes the drink is the same each time. The gourd is handed from each drinker to the pourer and they in turn pass it to the next drinker after that, before receiving it again to fill up the cup.
There are probably more rules than I have stated here (several of which I will have broken unknowingly), but these are the most important to help you at least look like you know what you’re doing.
For me, drinking maté was more of a social activity than it was for the taste. As I said earlier, I’m not much of a tea fan and maté didn’t really do anything for me. As for the rules, well I think I’ll just stick to beer in future*.
(*not for breakfast, obviously)