Almost 15 years ago, Ariana Maia, a geographer from Rio de Janeiro, moved to Ilópolis, a small town in the South of Brazil. Unlike most of her new neighbors, Ariana was not familiar with chimarrão, a local infusion highly consumed in the region.
For generations, her husband’s family grew yerba mate, the medicinal plant used in chimarrão. Ariana was a fan of a different mate drink, popularized on the beaches of Rio. Cariocas – as those born in Rio de Janeiro are known in the country – drink yerba mate toasted. The ice-cold tea, usually prepared with sugar and lemon juice, became so intrinsic to the sand culture that, in 2012, it was established as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of the city.
The union of two mate lovers was the beginning of a company that invests in studies to diversify the use of the yerba. “We saw a growing interest around the world for natural, healthy products. So my husband and I opened a new company and worked alongside the Technology Park of the University of Passo Fundo, fomenting researches and figuring out where to invest,” says Ariana.
Their company, Inovamate, is specialized in blends. Though their initial focus was local consumption, Ariana and her husband, Clovis Roberto Roman, have an eye on the international market.
“It is possible to make a good chimarrão, a good mate tea, and several quality products with yerba mate,” she says.
There’s a growing demand for the plant from cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries that have shown interest in its medicinal properties.
“Ilex paraguariensis” (the scientific name of yerba mate), contains a considerable amount of caffeine, saponins, polyphenols, xanthines, theophylline, theobromine, folic acid, tannins, minerals, and vitamins: A, B1, B2, C, and E. Therefore, it acts as an antioxidant, diuretic, laxative, stimulant, antidiabetic, antiobesity, antibacterial, antifungal, hypocholesterolemic, and it also improves digestion.
Studies have suggested it can help cancer treatments, due to its high concentration of caffeoylquinic acids (CAQ), a substance capable of inducing the self-destruction of cancer cells by damaging their DNA.
When ready to consume as chimarrão or tea, yerba mate can differ in color, texture, and taste. The final product varies from brand to brand, from different harvests, and by the temperature of the water used. But, in general terms, yerba mate is light and fresh, with some bitter and toasted flavor.
“The Ilex paraguariensis is a native plant with potential for reforestation in the Atlantic Forest,” says Marina Zimmermann, technical advisor to the Brazilian Confederation of Agriculture and Livestock’s National Commission of Rural Family Entrepreneurs. “In addition to already having an indication of origin (IP) in São Mateus do Sul, in the state of Paraná, yerba mate also has potential use in the health area,” she adds.
According to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), there are around 400 companies, responsible for approximately 500 brands of mate in the country. Every year, Brazil produces over 500 thousand tons of yerba mate and has a great potential to increase its production. Nearly 80% of that is consumed internally.
The ritual of drinking chimarrão was adopted by Spanish and Portuguese colonizers when they arrived in the southernmost part of the Americas and met the Guaranis. The Indigenous people – who lived in the region of the Paraná, Paraguay, and Uruguay river basins – drunk yerba mate routinely.
Until today, families and friends in the South of Brazil gather to share a chimarrão gourd and socialize.