Yerba Mate History: Leicester, and What Might Have Been…

Kraus Organic Yerba Mate Growing

When doing my PhD research I often got distracted. This wasn’t because my research was boring, just that it was very easy to get sidetracked when using a database as incredible as the British Library’s online newspaper collection. In one of my many moments of procrastination I naturally decided to see what people in the nineteenth and early-twentieth century were saying about yerba mate, having recently discovered it myself. My initial searches revealed a fascinating snapshot of yerba mate history, a curious selection of adverts from London tea sellers attempting to market yerba to their customers.

One piece that falls in to a slightly different category that really caught my attention was a letter written to the Leicester Mercury, the local newspaper in Leicester that is still published today. Leicester, recently notable for being the final resting place of King Richard III, as well as home to Premier League giant killers Leicester City FC, is also UruShop’s hometown. This letter suggests, however, that long before Renzo and Emma were around to start their business, Leicester was already home to at least one big fan of yerba mate.

Yerba mate plant

Titled “A South American Tea,” the letter in question was written in September 1882 by Mr. J Moden of 5 Evington Road, Leicester. He begins by explaining that he had recently finished reading Revue Scientifique by the French scientist and traveller Louis Couty, one of the early experts on the pharmacology of mate. Yerba mate, he explains, grows abundantly in the Southern Cone of South America, and forms “the tea and coffee as well as the beer and wine of populations spread over a region as extensive as the whole of Europe.” Continuing to quote Couty’s work, Moden then proceeds with a detailed account of both the cultivation and traditional drinking rituals of mate, as well as some of its positive benefits when compared to other beverages,

“it certainly takes the place of coffee and alcoholic beverages… and while not open to the abuse of [those] drinks, it is said to posses a far greater restorative and nutritive value than either tea or coffee.”

The frequent references to the negative effects of alcoholic drinks should not come as a surprise from a corespondent in Leicester, as during the nineteenth century the Temperance Movement had strong support in the City. It would therefore have been a good way of trying to convince the readership of mate’s qualities.

The letter came at an interesting time in the history of mate. By the later-nineteenth century the industry was only just really starting to recover, after a major collapse following the Spanish expulsion of the Jesuits from Paraguay in 1767. Indeed, it is clear from reading Moden’s letter that the mass-production of mate that we see today was still not a reality in 1882, he continues, “there is no need of the slow growth of special plantations [and] no costly process involved in the production of the article.” The relative cheapness of mate is also used by Moden as a convincing argument as to why the drink would make a welcome introduction to Great Britain, claiming that it would remove “the temptation to adulterate it with injurious ingredients,” something for which tea had been traditionally notorious for because of its cost.

The final part of the letter provides us with a fascinating insight into the problems that tea merchants at this time were facing when attempting to introduce mate into foreign markets, many of which might still be seen to exist today. Moden suggested that most of the prejudice towards mate came from a suspicion of the traditional means of consuming it, and that in order to make it more acceptable to Europeans, it would probably need to be pulverised into a fine powder like tea and coffee. Moden explains,

“it is in this latter form that it has come under my notice, and I may add a small spoonful of the powder sufficient to make a cup of the beverage., which is certainly not unpleasant to the palate, being less bitter than either tea or coffee… Sugar improves it, but it requires no milk.”

The fact that mate is still not a recognisable feature of mainstream British culture today clearly shows that early efforts to introduce the beverage were not entirely successful. It is nevertheless fascinating to see that yerba mate had it’s advocates in the United Kingdom well over a century ago, and letters like this offer us just a glimpse of what otherwise might have been had more people listened to individuals like Moden. 

yerba mate growing

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“A South American Tea”, Leicester Mercury, (23rd September, 1882) – British Library Newspapers.

Christine Folch, Stimulating Consumption: Yerba Mate Myths, Markets, and Meanings from Conquest to Present, Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol.52, Issue.1, (2010), pp.6-36.