Yerba mate is a pretty crucial part of our life here in Paraguay. (See our previous post if you’re wondering what in the world yerba mate even is!) It keeps us warm, it helps us bond with our neighbors and quite frankly it’s pretty delicious stuff with lots of flavor options so you never get bored. It’s a pity then that Isaiah and I had never visited our local plant that processes yerba. The visit from my parents was just the excuse we needed to finally change that.
One morning, my parents, Isaiah and I walked to the edge of town to tour the factory that produces the Puntero brand of yerba right here in Yuty. The plant wasn’t operating that day due to lack of leaves to process, but the kind manager showed us around anyway.
Yerba is made from the leaves of the holly tree. That’s one in the photo above, with its leaves already snagged for production. When I heard this, the Christmas song “the holly and thee i-vy” instantly ran through my head and although I don’t know for sure that’s the same holly (it probably is though, right?), I felt excited and like I had a connection to mate as early as my childhood and just didn’t know it.
The holly tree can produce leaves for 60 years and this local plant gets most of their leaves from nearby farmers who grow, harvest and sell it to the plant. If a small branch of the holly tree makes a clear snapping noise when broken in half, it is fresh and perfect for use. If it’s bendy and doesn’t have that crisp snapping sound, it is old and shouldn’t be used in production.
After harvest, all the leaves and small twigs are sent up a conveyor belt and through a tunnel to dry them. Burning wood provides the heat necessary for this process, which removes around 80% of the water content from the leaves.
Then, you wait. For two years the dried leaves are set out to rest. Over this time more water evaporates and the flavor mellows out into something much less bitter. Our guide told us if we were to use the fresh yerba in mate it would be strong enough to possibly hurt our stomachs.
After the two years pass, the dried leaves go through some huge machinery that sorts the leaves into like parts – the powder, the tiny twigs, the bigger leaves, the tiny leaves, etc.
Then, according to the recipe for each particular style of yerba that Puntero makes, the parts are recombined and dropped into the Puntero plastic bag and sealed. For example, their line of yerba perfect for making cocido (another traditional drink) includes a much higher percentage of the powder than their regular mix of yerba that we buy.
I found this tour so interesting. Sort of like my favorite episode of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood when we toured the crayon-making factory. Only this was in person. Excellent and informative. Now, will someone please pass me some mate?