Bombilla, pronounced “Bom-Bee-Sha,” the word literally means “straw” in Castellano. Without the bombilla, there’s no drinking mate. It’s an essential tool when drinking yerba traditionally out of a mate (gourd). Unless you’re drinking mate cocido, bagged mate, then forget about making mate without your bombilla.
With bombilla styles, you have a few options: fanned, coiled, spoon, chambered, double-action, pick, and bamboo or wooden. Most bombillas nowadays have some degree of curvature, as to prevent the drinker from having to lower his head unnecessarily and uncomfortably when taking a sip of the holy herb. In the book “El Mate,” by Argentine Mate Extraordinaire, Scutella, we learn of the Italian immigrant Annio Silvio Pizzoni, having come to live in Buenos Aires after WWI and working as a taxi driver. Then one day, observing the straight line of the bombillas in use, decided to make a curved bombilla which became a conversation piece of his clients upon seeing him use it to drink. Later, he would begin manufacturing them and so began the invention, or at least one invention story, of the curved bombilla we see today.
The fanned bombillas, with a spade-like head with small horizontal slivers as filters, have more resistance, which I prefer. For me, it helps me to appreciate the taste more, as less mate enters the mouth. It’s like smoking a perfect cigar with the right amount of tension; if it permits too much smoke, it’s overwhelming. One of the best things about the fanned bombilla is that you can better maneuver the yerba in the gourd when it needs to be repositioned for whatever reason — it’s become tapado, clogged, or you need to fix the angle. It’s also better for scraping out the yerba when you’re on to your next round of mates — the fan-like shape of the bombilla acts like a shovel’s head and enables you to scoop out the yerba. You can’t quite achieve that with the circular, coiled bombilla.
The coiled bombilla was my first. It’s perhaps the most simple functioning bombilla in history. It’s simply a coil that’s tightly rung together to act as a filter; the liquid enters through the fine slivers between the coils and the yerba is kept out. These bombillas are usually stainless steel, not made of the superior alpaca. A problem with some of them is the cap that’s on the bottom of the coil: it’s usually made from non-stainless steel and tends to rust and/or deteriorate in time with corrosion. Look for one that’s 100% stainless.
The spoon bombilla is my all time favorite. For someone that drinks mostly Gaucho mate, the spoon bombilla is indispensable. This bombilla, taking on a spoon-like filter, is perforated with pin-sized holes dotted around the flat head of the spoon. It’s the perfect bombilla to scoop under the thicker, more spongy Gaucho yerbas that tend to cake-up inside the mate. These bombillas are common in Uruguay. Also note that many spoon bombillas are flattened-out inside of retaining a roundness. I actually prefer the flat bombillas because they are easier to sip and sit better on the lips; more natural flowing.
Double Action Bombilla
This is an interesting double-take on the coiled and spoon bombilla. The bombilla has several holes at the end, which are covered with a spring that acts as a second filtered layer; that spring is affixed to the end of the bombilla with an adjustable wing-like wrapper that pins the isolated spring over the holes beneath. This bombilla is more typical of Argentina; though, in Uruguay, you’re more likely to see a different version of this bombilla where the entire filter mechanism is fused together as opposed to moveable parts.
This is a sort of awkward bombilla, with a tea-ball-like chamber encased inside a latch that swings open like a door at the end of the bombilla. The chamber is placed inside of the enclosure then the door is swung back down and the entire filter is locked into place with a small metal ring that wraps around the enclosures handle, firmly securing the filter to the bombilla. Apart from the cumbersome nature of this bombilla, the chamber tends to rattle as you sip the yerba, which makes for an annoying vibration on your lips as you drink. Some materos loves this bombilla, but I’m not a fan at all. I don’t like all the movable parts; simplicity is sacrificed here for an overly-mechanized and clumsy design which may look cool, but doesn’t quite work so well. They’re pretty cool “just to have,” though.
I call this bombilla a “pick” because it’s shaped like one of those dental picks that the Dentist uses to work on your teeth during a cleaning. Usually made from alpaca, having an acute bend or “pick” as the filter, with several fine slivers across each side of the bombilla. The pick is especially good for scraping out the flesh of the calabash gourd during the curing, or ripening process. It’s also very handy for simply spooning-out your yerba when you’re changing out a cycle.
Made from a thin and slightly bent bamboo cane, this bombilla is perhaps the most in accord with nature. Though not as common as the metal ones, these bombillas are pretty neat and fun. You may also find wooden bombillas, but are equally out-of-fashion with the modern mate drinker. If you grow bamboo, try making your own by cutting a thin portion of a cane and boring some slits into the base to form a natural filter.