There is a cluster of high-incidence areas of oesophageal cancer in south-eastern South America, including Southern Brazil, Uruguay and parts of Argentina. The present case-control study investigated the hypothesis that this may be due to the drinking of maté, a traditional beverage drunk at a very high temperature, and also studied the role of other known risk factors such as alcohol and tobacco. Cases (171) and age- and sex-matched controls (342) were recruited from hospitals in the State of Rio Grande do Sul in Southern Brazil. The crude odds ratio for daily maté drinkers was 1.92 relative to those drinking less frequently than daily (p = 0.006). Other risk factors included the drinking of cachaça (a sugar cane spirit), smoking, rural residence, low fruit consumption and high intake of meats. After adjustment for these variables through conditional logistic regression, the odds ratio associated with daily maté drinking was reduced to 1.47 (90% CI = 0.87-2.50). Although the study failed to provide evidence of a strong association between maté and oesophageal cancer, the cluster of high rates could be explained by relative risks of the magnitude observed. This is due to the fact that approximately 70% of adult males and 50% of females are daily drinkers. In addition, this study revealed that alcohol, tobacco smoking and rural residence are the main risk factors for oesophageal cancer in this population and the fruit consumption confers some degree of protection.