Mapping Yerba Mate Consumption and That of Its Cousin, Ilex vomitoria (Yaupon)

Almost all data sources rank Turkey (Türkiye) as the world’s top tea-drinking country, and by a considerable margin. According to Wikipedia’s article on the subject, annual per capita tea consumption in Turley is 3.16 kg (6.96 lb), far overshadowing second-place Ireland’s 2.19 kg (4.83 lb). Yet according to a World Population Review article that lists 2024 tea consumption by country, the people of southern South America drink much more tea than those Turkey. Here the per capita tea consumption of Argentina is mapped as seven times greater than that of Turkey. What gives?

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The answer to this seeming mystery is that the writers at World Population Review have confused yerba mate with tea. Although producing a caffeine-rich beverage superficially similar to tea, yerba mate (a species of holly; Ilex paraguariensis), has no relationship with tea (a species of camelia; Camellia sinensis). Evidently, mate is consumed in much greater quantities in mate-drinking cultures than tea in consumed in tea-drinking cultures.

Although yerba mate is now globalizing, consumption is still focused in four South American countries: Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Brazil. Maps of mate-drinking that highlight these countries are somewhat misleading, however, as most of Brazil falls outside the mate zone, as seen in the second map below. Consumption in Brazil is heavily concentrated in the far south, particular in the state of Rio Grande do Sol. This pattern is not surprising, as Rio Grande do Sol was long contested by the Portuguese and Spanish colonial empires, and later by Brazil and its Spanish-speaking neighbors to the south. As a result, its culture has some affinities with those of Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay. In Brazil, the people of the state are often called gaúchos, which would be equivalent to calling Texans “cowboys.” Actual gaúchos tend to drink a lot of yerba mate, just as American cowboys have historically consumed a lot of coffee.

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The people Rio Grande do Sol generally embrace their gaúcho designation. As Ruben George Oliven explains in a 2006 Nations and Nationalism article:

From the 1930s, Brazil experienced a growing national centralisation and the construction of Brasilidade (Brazilianness). The military regime (1964–85) deepened centralisation and emphasised national identity, little space being left for regional identities. With the political opening and the redemocratisation of Brazil, starting at the end of the 1970s, the stress was on differences in a period in which Brazil had already achieved a high degree of integration. Identities were re-created, among them that of Rio Grande do Sul, the southernmost state of Brazil, where a strong revival of gaúcho culture took place. The 1980s and 1990s were marked by a growing development of activities and disputes linked to the gaúcho tradition. In spite of the fact that Rio Grande do Sul is predominantly urban and industrialised, this process reached out to the state’s rural past and the equestrian figure of the gaúcho.

Intriguingly, the world’s three main hot, caffeinated drinks – coffee, tea, and mate – all have religious roots. Coffee was popularized in Yemen by Sufi mystics who found it useful for keeping awake during all-night chanting sessions. Tea was first popularized in China by Buddhist monks who found it useful for keeping awake during all-night meditation sessions. The story of mate is different, but it too has religious aspects. In pre-colonial times, mate consumption was evidently limited to two relatively small subgroups of the Guaraní people. The Jesuits subsequently united the Guaraní people of Paraguay under a theocratic state. They encouraged mate consumption and effectively domesticated the plant. Mate eventually became the national beverage of Paraguay, and later expanded into Argentina, Uruguay, and southern Brazil.

Yeba mate is closely related to another caffeine plant, Yaupon, which grows in the southeastern lowlands of the United States. Indigenous peoples drank Yaupon tea, sometimes to excess. The plant’s scientific name, Ilex vomitoria, “comes from an observation by early Europeans that the ingestion of the plant was followed by vomiting in certain ceremonies[;]… the vomiting may have resulted from the great quantities in which they drank the beverage, coupled with fasting.”  Such a fasting and (caffeine-) feasting regime also probably had spiritual roots.

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Yaupon is now undergoing something of a comeback in the U.S., grown by people who want a “healthy coffee alternative” and who value its beauty and the food that it provides for wildlife. As Lily Anderson Messec writes:

Pollinators flock to its masses of tiny white flowers in spring, and birds eat the berries that follow the flowers. Most importantly, our native insects feed on these plants they have evolved with, providing protein rich meals (in the form of themselves) for birds and other wildlife.

The wildlife, however, are not the only ones eating it. The prime reason I planted my Yaupon was for its caffeine rich leaves. By weight, the leaves contain more caffeine than both coffee beans and green tea —the highest caffeine content of any plant native to North America. Yaupon holly is also high in antioxidants and less bitter than green tea. It is a close cousin of the South American yerba maté (Ilex paraguariensis) and its tea is similar in flavor and quality.