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 maté (pronounced YER-ba MAH-tay), a tea-like decoction of the leaves of Ilex paraguariensis, a hardy but finicky, small evergreen tree related to holly but grown only in the semi-tropical lowlands that make up southeastern Brazil, southern Paraguay and the hitchhiker's thumb of Argentine territory between the two.
A bitter, slightly smoky drink, yerba maté was a staple beverage for centuries among the indigenous Guaraní people, and Jesuit missionaries first commercialized it. Later, on Argentina's vast pampas, gauchos subsisting on a frontier diet drank maté for the vitamins it contains as well as for the pleasure of a hot, revivifying, non-intoxicating drink. Since then, yerba maté has grown into a $350-million industry employing 400,000 people in the three producing nations. Surprisingly, many of the brew's devotees are to be found in homes and cafés in the Arab world, especially in Syria and Lebanon.
In fact, of the 200,000 hectares (500,000 acres) that grow yerba maté in Argentina, a respectable eight percent are given over to export production, much of it shipped to Arab countries. The biggest customer abroad last year was Syria, which bought 5.8 million kilograms (12.8 million pounds) of yerba maté valued at around $7.4 million, according to Argentine government statistics. Other large importers include Chile, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emiratés. It is neighboring Uruguay, however, that boasts the highest per-capita consumption of maté in the world.
"During the time the Ottoman Empire ruled Syria, Lebanon and Egypt, many Arabs emigrated to Argentina, and there they learned to drink yerba maté," explained Juan Carlos Peña, director of Cruz de Malta SA, which handles 70 percent of Argentina's yerba maté exports to the Arab world. "They worked hard, made money and returned to the Middle East, but they kept the custom of drinking yerba maté."
Abel Actis, manager of Establecimiento Las Marias SA, Argentina's largest producer, added, "When the immigrants who lived here returned to Syria, the only thing they took back with them that was typical of Argentina was yerba maté."
According to experts, the leaf of the Argentine variety of Ilex paraguariensis is so prized in Syria that inferior blends from Paraguay and Brazil are occasionally falsely labeled in Arabic to lure the unwary into thinking it comes from Argentina. In Damascus alone such counterfeit brands have carried at least a half-dozen names.
"The Arabs are particular, and they 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 counterfeited," remarks Luis de Bernardi, a maté expert in Buenos Aires.
In the United States, only some $400,000 worth of maté is consumed annually, mostly by Argentines in New York, Miami and Los Angeles. One US firm, Cawy Bottling Co., has begun canning a carbonated drink, named Matérva, made from yerba maté extract. And more and more, yerba maté is turning up at health-food stores.
Indeed, the extract of Ilex paraguariensis, say its aficionados, calms and energizes at the same time—traits similar to those claimed for the ginseng root—while providing a dose of vitamins along the way. It contains less tannin than tea and less caffeine than either tea or coffee. "The gaucho lived on wheat and water and maté," said de Bernardi. Yerba maté "has high concentrations of carbohydrates, phosphorus, iron, calcium and vitamins C, B1 and B2 ."
The beverage is made with both the palo , or stem, of the plant and the hoja , or leaf; a third component is polvo , or leaf powder, the product of a milling process. According to Rogelio Llambi, an Argentine native who lives in Paraguay and is president of Yerba Maté Asuncion SA, there are more than 200 brands of maté on the market. Like coffee and tea, preparation of the drink varies from country to country.
"Chileans, for example, like only the leaf, which is more expensive than the grade consumed in Syria, which contains both palo and polvo . Paraguayans mix the leaf or the powder with ice water and call it tereré ," explains Llambi.
At the Yerba Maté Rosamonte SA factory, which employs some 200 workers, controller Angel Rogosinski showed how freshly picked maté leaves are passed rapidly over a fire for 20 to 30 seconds to remove humidity. From there, they go to the secado , a second drying process that lasts just over half a day. Then the leaves are put through the canchadora , where they are shredded and packed into 50-kilogram (110-pound) jute sacks. These sacks are then left to age for six months to two years. This final process—the estacionamiento—is crucial in determining the quality of the final product and the depth of its flavor.
Aged maté is sorted into prelabeled packets ranging from 250 grams (one-half pound) to two kilograms (4/4 pounds) and trucked to Buenos Aires for distribution. Currently, prices average around $1.40 per kilo, making a cup of yerba maté cheaper than almost any other beverage—at least in the country where it's grown.
Despite efforts to market Argentine yerba maté overseas, there is still little demand for the plant outside the Middle East and southern Latin America. In 1992 the government of Carlos Menem—himself of partly Middle Eastern ancestry—disbanded the Yerba Maté Regulatory Commission, whose purpose had been to protect the markets of the country's 14,000 yerbateros , or maté 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.
Larry Luxner is the editor ofSouth America Report, a monthly business newsletter published in Bethesda, Maryland.