Friday, March 5, 2010

Chimarrão - The Gaúcho Way to Drink Erva-Mate

In an earlier post on Flavors of Brazil, I wrote about the plant erva-mate (or in Spanish, yerba mate) which is the iconic drink of a large part of southern South America. You can read about the plant here. Throughout the southern cone of South America, the leaves of the erva-mate plant are used to create a variety of drinks - some hot, some cold, some with green fresh leaves, some with dry leaves, some bitter, some sweet. In this post, we'll discuss the way erva-mate is most commonly drunk in the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul - in the drink known as Chimarrão.

In Brazilian Portuguese, the inhabitants of Rio Grande do Sul are called Gaúchos. Gaúcho in Portuguese carries the same original meaning it does in Argentinian Spanish - referring to the ranchers and cowboys of the vast pampas of this region. In Portuguese, the word is pronounced slightly differently than in Spanish, as "ga-OO-shoe." To most present-day Brazilians, however, a Gaúcho means nothing more than a person who lives in Rio Grande do Sul, and the word has lost its connections to ranching and cowboys.

Even though most Gaúchos have little or nothing to do with cattle ranching, the culture of the original cowboy gaúchos is still very much present in the south of Brazil. This can be seen in the cuisine of Rio Grande do Sul, and heard in the music; both derive from traditional  gaúcho ways.

Many Gaúchos make drinking erva-mate a daily habit; indeed, many drink it continually all day. In the streets or in the parks of any city in Rio Grande do Sul, at work or at home, a significant part of the population will be drinking erva-mate in the form of chimarrão at any given time. And it's easy to spot who's drinking chimarrão, because the apparatus used, and the ritual of preparation are unique to this type of tea. For many visitors to Porto Alegre, or other cities of this state, the sight of omnipresent chimarrão drinkers is one of their strongest memories when they return home.

Chimarrão is a drink made by infusing dried leaves and stems of the erva-mate plant in hot water (not boiling water which makes it bitter). The essential equipment, other than the tea itself includes a thermos jar of hot water, a cuia and a bomba. The cuia is a dried gourd, usually rounded or egg-shaped, which has been hollowed out and dried, often carved or ornamented with worked gold or silver. A bomba is simply a hollow metallic "straw" with a filter at one end, from which the  chimarrão is drunk.

To make chimarrão, some erva-mate leaves are placed in the bottom of the cuia, then hot water is poured over them, and left to steep. After a few minutes it is ready to drink.

The etiquette and ritual of drinking chimarrão is detailed and unvarying. Chimarrão is a social drink, and there are strict rules which must be obeyed when drinking it with others. The "host/hostess", the person who is offering the drink, must be the first person to pour hot water over the tea, and also the first person to drink. This is considered altruistic, as the first infusion is the strongest, and can be bitter. When he or she has drunk all the chimarrão he must refill the cuia with hot water from the thermos, and pass the drink and the thermos to the next person (usually people are served in order of importance, socially or economically). That person in turn must drink all the chimarrão, then refill the cuia and pass it to the next person along with the thermos. In turn, each person in the group receives the cuia filled with chimarrão , drinks it, refills the cuia and passes it on. It is considered extremely bad manners not to drink all the chimarrão, and to leave some in the cuia for the next person. To show to the group that one has drunk all the chimarrão, it is considered polite to drink until the bomba makes a gurgling sound, indicating there is no more liquid in the cuia.

 Chimarrão is not the only drink made from erva-mate, but it is definitely the most important one culturally. Drinking chimarrão with family, colleagues or friends creates a social bond, and fosters one's identity as a  Gaúcho.

In future posts, I'll talk about some of the other drinks made from this very special type of holly.


  1. I understand that South Americans traditionally drink yerba mate sweetened with stevia...have you seen this...I think the only brand that offers yerba mate in the US is Wisdom of the Ancients...

    1. Don't kill me, dude. Sweetened chimarrão. We don't drink it like that. As my dad would put it, "you gotta be strong and fierce to drink chimarrão". We only put stevia to make kids drink, and by kids I really mean until they're 3. Sorry about my tone here, but we just get horrified at the thought of sweetened chimarrão.

  2. Very well written! And very good information about the Gauchos.. I am one of them and I was searching exactly to post in my blog, which I am still learning how to blogging, to explain to my australian friends what that drink of mine is.. lol.. It is not published yet.. but will by the next week..
    See ya..

  3. Great site, excellent article, congratulations!

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  4. I have to agree with the comments above.
    I am from Rio Grande do Sul, and was trying to explain an american woman about the drink I was having, and found out this article. Very well written!

  5. Thanks for the comment. It's nice to hear that a true Gaucho agrees with what Flavors of Brazil has to say on this topic.

  6. Yes, a well written article. I would like to sugest you have a look at the photos... That's not the "cuia", we gauchos from Brazil, use to drink chimarrao. The "bomba" is not the correct one as well.

    1. Well said. This cuia is more commonly used to drink "tererê", the cold version of the drink.

    2. Well said. This cuia is more commonly used to drink "tererê", the cold version of the drink.

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  8. Great article, guy, I loved it!

    Anyway, I hope you won't be offended if I do two important corrections!!
    1) The traditional Chimarrao round doesn't happens in order of social importance, NO WAY, this is almost an insult!! 😁 Well, when drinking at work, sometimes, people give in this orders as a respect act to their bosses, but it's an exception.

    It's passed in a round always to the LEFT people. Never break the order!

    2) The erva-mate in the bottom is the Uruguayan way. The Gaucho way is to cover the entire top of the cuia with some hard thing, turn the cuia, and slowly return it, so the erva-mate stays the most as possible ABOVE the water, in the top of the cuia. Then you put the water, cover the bomba with your finger, insert it between the erva-mate shape/structure and the cuia, push it, and remove the finger (it'll make the water fill the space around the bomba).

    Don't be lazy and prepare the chimarrao with the erva-mate at the bottom, it'll be 10x easier to drink I'd you prepare this way I've said, and it'll be more durable 😉

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  11. Question..I'm from Argentina so been drinking mate forever, however just bought a Brazilian one and it's all powder and it keeps plugin the u prepare it so it don't plug up?

    1. I have been drinking the Uruguayan version my whole life too and I'm having the same problem. Please help so I don't have to throw this all away!

      Also wanted to note that in Uruguayan culture we usually pass the cup back to the host who will hold the water and refill it, and then pass it back to the next person. It will go around the circle but after each person always back to the host.