Many people have heard of maté, a tea made with hot water and yerba maté leaves, commonly found in Argentina, Uruguay and southern Brazil. Coffee shops across the United States are beginning to offer yerba maté tea bags as it grows in popularity. However, in the small, landlocked country of Paraguay, where temperatures average 95 degrees in the summer and often rise up to 110, tereré reigns supreme as the nation’s drink of choice.
Pronounced te-re-RE, using the “e” from “bet” and with the r’s sounding more like soft d’s, the beverage is an iced tea version of hot maté. But the tea, a combination of ice-cold water and yerba maté leaves, is so much more than a beverage for the people of Paraguay. The drink embodies a sense of community and friendship.
When tereré is drunk with fruit juice rather than water it is often called “tereré ruso” because it is commonly consumed by Slavic immigrants in parts of Argentina and Paraguay. Tereré purists snub their noses at this variation.
A Paraguayan is rarely found far from their “equipo de tereré,” or tereré gear, which consists of their “guampa” (a cup shaped like a cow’s horn), “bombilla” (filtered straw) and “termo” (thermos). In ”el campo” (the countryside), people tend to use a jar or pitcher rather than a termo.
The serving of the tereré is crucial. The tea is often drunk while sitting in a circle, and the youngest person of the group is usually the server, called the cebador[a]. Everyone in the circle uses the same bombilla, but each person finishes a cupful of the tea, sharing the tools but not the liquid. Polite people beware! Saying “gracias” means you are done and would not like to be served again. So keep your thank-yous to yourself until you’re really finished. Another common foreigner faux pas is moving the bombilla. The bombilla is carefully placed to keep the tereré from being too bitter. Swirling it around will ruin the drink and earn you rolled eyes and exclamations of protest.
Some participants wait a few rounds for the terere to get more “lavado,” which means washed-out or flat. The taste of yerba maté is smoky and bitter, and the bitterness can be toned down after the first few drinks.
“Tereré rupa” is a snack, usually a starchy one, that one eats before beginning to drink their tereré for the day.
Tereré can – and is – also drunk individually. Paraguayans drink the tea year-round and throughout the day. In the morning, people often add “remedios yuyos” – medicinal herbs, leaves and roots – to the water. Some herbs target indigestion, others lower blood pressure, and some are just for flavor.
The naturally caffeinated tea leaves, found in the canopy of the Upper Paraná Atlantic rainforest, have many health benefits. Most notably, the leaves have a high antioxidant capacity, even more so than green tea. The tea has been associated with the prevention of cancer and, alternatively, with the cause of some types of cancer, although research has largely shown a positive outcome from drinking tereré.
In Asunción, the capital of Paraguay, the termos themselves are fashion statements. Each termo is often personalized with different colors, materials, embroidered designs, sports team logos and monograms of one’s name. You commonly see people whizzing by you with a personalized termo hanging off their moto.
If you are looking to jump on the tereré train, you can order the supplies online. Guayaki, a California-based company, sells tereré bottled, to drink cold. However, this skips the social process of tereré, which is a majority of the fun in drinking the tea.
Another option? Book a flight down to Asunción and try it for yourself. You’ll be the only American not spinning the bombilla around and spitting out premature thank-yous like an amateur.
Why you should care
With a higher antioxidant capacity than that of green tea, tereré is not a tea to be taken lightly.