Mates, Mates, Mates - all you need to know about your yerba mate cup
Does it matter what you drink your yerba from? In a word - yes. Keen yerba mate drinkers are very particular - it makes all the difference in taste.
To explain - the 'cup' is known as the 'mate'. The original and most popular vessel is made from a gourd, which is the fruit of the calabash plant. Throughout history this fruit has been hollowed out and dried and used as a water-carrying vessel in most cultures and throughout the world. Depending on the variety, the gourd can be of a variety of different shapes and sizes, below is an example of the famous bottle shaped gourd that needs additional support to be free-standing, such as a wire frame (posamate) or wrapped in leather folded in such a way to create a base.
The gourd is by far the most popular recipient for yerba mate which leads to most vessels being referred to as a gourd, whether they are made from a gourd or not.
Due to gourd being a dried out fruit, it is completely normal when you get a new one, that the inside still has the debris from the hollowing out process - paper-like pith, seeds etc. A more expensive gourd, worked by an artesan will probably be cleaned out, however most gourds will have this debris which can simply be removed prior to curing. The curing process can extend the life of the gourd, improve flavour, and most importantly prevents splitting. Moist yerba mate leaves are left for a period of time, which reduces the 'raw' flavour of the gourd. Curing is an art, and many people have their own methods such as using salt, alcohol etc. The gourd adds flavour to the yerba mate, and some people will only use their gourd until there is no more flavour, and then move on to another one. Read more about the curing process here.
Over time, the gourd will continue to cure, gradually lose flavour, and turn from beige to black. Many people are put off by the appearance of the mate when black, although it is safe to drink from, and is completely normal. See below what a gourd looks in its various stages.
Wooden mates are also popular, some woods add a very nice flavour to your yerba mate. They are made on a lathe, and as such can be made to size specifications unlike gourds which are whatever shape and size they grow to be. Wooden mates are sometimes wrapped in alimiumium, and sometimes engraved. Two of the most popular wooden mates are Algarrobo and Palo Santo.
Algarrobo is also known as the Carob tree, the fruit of which is traditionally used as a natural sweetener. Mates made of Algarrobo are ideal for flavoured yerba mate as the wood is fragrant and sweet.
Palo Santo is a hardwood native to the tropical and subtropical regions of the Americas. Mates made from Palo Santo are the most popular wooden mates, the taste combination of this fragrant wood and yerba mate is exquisite; the wood itself is beautiful, and is usually crafted to a fine polished finish.
Horn - Guampa
The most traditional mate cup in Paraguay is made from a horn - usually an ox horn - also known as a guampa. Due to the nature of the guampa, the resulting vessel has an iconic arched shape, often decorated with leather coverings, intricate metal rims and chains.
If you suffer from allergies or acid indigestion, a great alternative to the natural gourd is a glass or ceramic recipient. Some people find that the natural acidity contained in the gourd mixed together with yerba mate produces extra acidity, and as such these new recipients have become increasingly popular. They are often made to look just like natural gourds or guampas, but on the inside are glass or ceramic. There is also an added benefit - cleaning is much easier.