All About Bombillas (Yerba Mate Straws): What are they? How do you choose one?
Bombillas are one of the most crucial aspects of mate drinking. It also makes it so different from tea or coffee. They are what determines the act and way of drinking it, slowly and throughout the whole day.
They also are what many people are curious about. More often than not, the first question I get asked when drinking mate is: Is that a pipe?’. It is usually followed by a ‘Do you all drink from it?’ after I have explained what mate is. So, today, we are tackling all the bombilla-related questions.
- What is a bombilla?
- What does that name mean? When does it come from?
- Which are the differences between a bombilla and a metal straw?
- What should I take into account before buying one?
And of course,
- Is that a pipe? (The answer is no)
- Do we all drink from it? (Depends, but yes)
What is a bombilla?
A bombilla (pronounced bawm-bee-yah) is a tool used to drink mate. It has a specific design that prevents accidentally drinking the yerba mate leaves and stems as well as burning with hot water while drinking.
What does ‘bombilla’ mean?
Although some cultures, such as the Kaingang people or the Ch’unchu tribe drunk mate without a bombilla, the use of this tool is as old as the drink itself.
Guaraní people called tacuapí what we now call bombilla, but also bamboo canes, which were the material they used to fabricate bombillas. To make a bombilla, they would, firstly, choose a thin rode of approximately 5mm diameter.
Secondly, they would cut it from under the cane’s knot to around 20 cm long. The knot was then perforated multiple times, allowing water to go through. Another technique included to cut in between the knots, and then to use a small, hollow fruit, which was perforated and adjusted to a cane.
A third was to create a small net with vegetal fibers that it was then put to the cane.
The Spanish conquerors understood the function of the tacuapí as equivalent to a water pump and started calling it bomba. However, due to its shape, the diminutive bombilla, was used and popularized. However, in some areas of Brazil and Paraguay, bomba is still the name used, as well as mombilla or mombillape.
In Spanish, a bombilla is also refered to as cañita, which is the diminutive of caña. Caña is the Spanish for Cane. The use of cane bombillas was so widespread that in Argentina, in the 19th Century, even the metal bombillas were called cañitas.
Isn’t it the same as a metal straw? Parts and shape of bombillas
A bombilla has three main components: the beak or boquilla, the neck, and the filter. This is the main difference with a conventional metal straw - it is not just a metal cylinder from which to sip. The three parts have special functions that contribute to an enjoyable mateada.
Pico (beak) or boquilla
The beak (pico in Spanish) or boquilla (which means ‘small mouth’) of the bombilla is the part where the matero puts their lips to drink mate.
On the cane bombillas, the shape is quite simple and resembles an end of a straw. Metal bombillas are another story. At the same temperature, metal bombillas would cause burns, whereas cane bombillas would not. This higher thermal conductivity meant it was necessary to make some changes.
Artisans making bombillas then used a thicker and better quality metal in the beak. They started flattening the end of the mandible to cool the water, regulate its flow, and improve the overall experience because it adapted better to lips. They also curved the bombilla (between the beak and the neck), so the mate could be drunk without tilting the head or the mate gourd.
The neck (cuello in Spanish) of the bombilla is the cylinder between the beak and the filter.
When made out of cane, they are usually hand-painted, engraved, or decorated with leather details. The metal ones are also often decorated with engravings or additions of other metals. They typically have small rings distributed around the neck and in the connection between neck and beak.
Their function, at least initially, was to give extra insulation and strength so the cebador could firmly grab the bombilla and change the yerba when needed.
Filtro or Paletilla
The bottom of the bombilla has a variety of names, such as coconut, drainer, small paddle (paletilla), filter or separator. Its purpose is to prevent yerba mate stems and leaves from entering the matero’s mouth.
There are a number of different types of filters, and we have already mentioned some of the ones used in the cane bombillas. With time, metal was widely adopted for its resistance - for instance, small wire nets were used instead of the ones made out of vegetable fibers.
In the mid 20th Century in the province of Tucumán, Argentina, another type of filter was made and popularized - called ‘coco tucumano’ (which translates as ‘coconut from Tucumán’). Tucuman was at a time producing sugar cane, which meant that sweet mate was the most common one. The bombillas had a bulb-like shape filter, which worked very well for that type of mate.
However, that bombilla did not work for the ‘bitter’ mate, as it is essential to use the bombilla almost as a spoon to prepare the drink. More commonly known as paletillas (small paddles), they resemble tiny laundry paddles, with one curved side and the other being almost flat. This type of filter can be welded to the neck, in which case it is particularly important to clean it thoroughly to prevent clogging and mold formation. Some newer filters can be detached from the neck by unscrewing them.
There is another type of bombilla that resembles a metal straw with a flexible spring on the bottom, and the spring acts as the filter. The spring can be removed for a faster clean.
Things to consider when buying a bombilla
There are two main aspects to consider when purchasing a bombilla: the material and the shape.
In terms of shape, that will depend entirely on the type of mate you want to drink. Chimarraos have a distinct bombilla, and we have also mentioned which ones work best for a sweet and ‘bitter’ mate.
Concerning the material, in this article, we have focused on cane and metal bombillas. We advise against buying bombillas cane or even wood bombillas because they are hard to clean and they are prone to mold formation. We also advise against purchasing glass bombillas due to their fragility.
Metal bombillas are made with a variety of materials, combinations, and proportions. A few include gold, silver, copper, lead, tin, stainless steel, bronze, iron, and alpaca. However, not all have the same quality.
We recommend not buying tin or iron bombillas because they absorb and transfer heat. Furthermore, some of these are covered with a copper cyanide plating and nickel plating. With time, they start to break up and are ingested, altering the taste of the mate but also being harmful. We do recommend buying silver, stainless steel and alpaca - they are resistant, durable and do not transfer as much heat as the others.
Just like with mate gourds, or even more so, bombillas are meant to last a lifetime.