Known as mate in Spanish-speaking countries and chimarrão in Brazil, the herbal infusion made with yerba mate leaves (Ilex paraguariensis) is a ubiquitous drink in Argentina, Uruguay, and southern Brazil.
According to the Argentinian trade association, the National Institute of Yerba Mate (INYM), last year was a record year. Domestic sales for yerba mate last year in Argentina reached 261.9 million kilos while exports came to a total of 43m kilos.
This represented an increase of two million kilos domestically despite “a complex economic context” while foreign exports grew by nearly 39% compared to 2017.
A positive balance in a difficult year
Carlos Coppoli, head of marketing at the INYM, puts this down to a combination of many factors.
“On the one side, INYM developed several advertising actions in different key markets, and the results are becoming visible," he told FoodNavigator-LATAM. "Companies also became more aggressive in their marketing actions and sales efforts.
"Then, the Syrian market, the biggest export market for our yerba mate, is recovering and growing after a couple of years of retraction due to socio-political troubles in the country.
“All this contributed to increasing our exports to more than 40 million kilos in 2018. On the other side, the domestic market is also strong and growing, and this is really good news for the yerba mate sector, one of the few that gave positive numbers this year.”
2018 was also a good year for yerba mate producers. They harvested around 809m kilos, after suffering lower yields in 2017 due to climate factors.
According to data from the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), most of world's yerba mate comes from Brazil. It produced over 619,000 tonnes in 2017, followed by Argentina (290,950t) and Uruguay (105,005t)
Yerba mate in Chile: 'Healthy, natural & mystic'
Within Latin America, the biggest export market for Argentinian yerba mate is neighboring Chile.
“In the south, they already had an old tradition of mate consumption, but not in Santiago, its capital city," said Coppoli. "We are working hard to increase mate popularity and consumption in the central and northern regions of Chile.
This work has been paying off, according to Coppoli.
"Exports have been growing from 2.7 up to 4.3 million kilos, and we hope this is only the beginning. Chilean people love mate because of its healthy properties, natural origin and its mystic [image].”
Yerba mate in Syria: A historic connection
However, the biggest export market for the herbal infusion globally is, somewhat surprisingly, Syria.
In 2017, Argentina exported 22,563 tons to Syria and 800 tons to Lebanon.
“History can explain that,” Coppoli told us, speaking from Gulfood in Dubai where the INYM was exhibiting this week.
“Lot of years ago [between 1850 and 1860], Syrian people came to Argentina and fell in love with mate. Then, back to its country, they took the magic of the infusion with them and its popularity grew so much that they have their own bands.
Drinking yerba mate is so deeply engrained in Syrian culture that many believe the custom originates there.
“Yerba mate is also imported from Argentina in bulk containers and packed in Syria with Syrian names. Most of the yerba mate consumed in Syria is in the traditional mate way and imported from Argentina,” he added.
Yerba mate manufacturers are also courting health-conscious consumers in export markets such as the US and Europe.
From flavors to formats: yerba mate innovation
“In Argentina, yerba mate is drunk mostly in the traditional way, but in the past years, there has been a lot of work done in [product] innovation," said
Argentinian brand Verdeflor recently launched a range of flavored mate, including orange, peppermint and lemon verbena.
Meanwhile, Coca-Cola Brazil launched a range of yerba mate Nespresso-compatible pods under its Leão brand last year to meet Brazilian consumers’ demand for “practical and convenient” drinks.
“We think that these developments will open new horizons for the product […] not only for the food and drink industry [such as] mate herbal teas and other drinks, desserts, soups, shakes and more but also in cosmetics and medicine.”
Mate innovation is also set to go digital. Unicode Consortium has developed a mate emoji for users, which is expected to be available on instant messaging provider Whatsapp this year. Yerba Mate Argentina, the brand of INYM, said it showed “the infusion is a cultural phenomenon spread throughout the world”.
#Ahora | @luisavalmaggia1 en línea con la diseñadora @DanielaGuini Integrante del equipo argentino que consiguió incorporar el #emojidelmate a los emoticones. Desde el próximo 5 de marzo en todos las aplicaciones móviles @r_cooperativapic.twitter.com/tCFlKyGATS— Abrir el Juego (@AbrirelJuego770) 18 février 2019