The drink is very communal and one person will make it and it will get passed around the room, after each turn getting passed back to the original person to be filled again with hot water. Each time it gets filled, the person who it gets passed to will drink the entire contents of water through the straw until it makes a sucking noise and then pass it back. The person filling the maté, known as the cebador, will often get up to leave the room and refill the thermos. The professors become indignant if no maté is to be found in the room and will stop in mid sentence to growl their grievances.
Maté is a tea that is typical of the Rio de la Plata Region of South America (Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay) and it is not uncommon to see people drinking it on the street, although it is not nearly as convenient as a to-go cup, because one needs both hands: one for holding the gourd which holds the tea and the other for pouring the hot water.
Maté is very bitter, so often people will add sugar or sweeteners, but I take it plain, and from what I've seen, so do most people in my class. Although each person has their own particular style when making a maté, my Uruguayan friend and classmate Horacio Varoli was willing to share his method with me. The video is in Spanish so below I have a basic translation of what he says in the video.
Horacio starts by telling us the materials needed to make maté:
Yerba(the tea itself)
Maté (the gourd that the tea is poured into)
Una Bombilla (a silver straw)
A thermos with hot water
A small glass of cold water.
1. Pour the dry yerba tea into the gourd. Horacio says "you don't have to put much in," but this is an expert speaking who can easily eyeball it. Usually the maté gets filled about 2/3 of the way with yerba.
2. Make a little hole with your fingertips on one side.
3. Take the cold water and put it in wetting the leaves--but not soaking them--and let it sit for about 3-4 minutes so that it absorbs the cold water.
4. In the hole that was made at the beginning put the bombilla (silver straw) in as if digging a shovel but trying to maintain the little mountain of tea that is on the top made from creating the hole.
5. Now, time to cebar or add the hot water on the side where the hole was and now the stem of the bombilla is.
6. Then, enjoy. The first maté is the most bitter, but that's just the way Horacio likes it.
** In the U.S., you can purchase mate at organic food stores, but often it is expensive and not as gritty and unrefined as what you find down here in the Southern Cone.