Calabash gourds have been here since the dawn of humanity. Thousands of years people of different cultures have been using dried and hollowed-out gourds as vessels for their liquids.
It comes as no surprise that calabash gourds were the first vessels for mate as well. Primarily adopted by indigenous Guaraní tribes, calabash gourds are by right the most traditional vessels for mate that stood the test of time and still are a very popular choice among the modern materos.
For some reason there is a common hearsay that calabash gourds are too hard to maintain and are too much upkeep compared to the present-day alternatives, like steel or silicone. The lack of knowledge about calabash gourds scares and puts off some of the new mate drinkers, when in reality calabash gourds are the best gourds for mate and most superstitions about them in my experience are either complete myths or highly exaggerated.
If you’re curious about calabash gourds, if they sound scary to you but still want to drink mate as traditional as it can be — hopefully by the end of this guide you will learn everything you need to know about calabash gourds and I will prove to you that they are awesome and worthwhile.
My collection of calabash gourds
Personally, I am a huge fan of calabash gourds — most of my collection (pictured above) consists of them. However, when I first started to drink mate, I used ceramic, clay and stainless steel gourds because I have read a lot of horror stories about the tedious curing process, cracking and mold inside of the gourd.
But it was the time I finally pulled the trigger and bought myself my first calabash gourd when I realised the convenience of drinking mate out of it, as well as its beautiful aesthetic and tactile feel, which made me start to really enjoy not just the taste of yerba mate, but a hobby and a lifestyle of matero.
I love calabash gourds because they are not just on par with steel, ceramic and silicone gourds, but because in my opinion they are much better and make mate in general much more enjoyable. Let me show you why.
It’s hard to describe the feeling of something that is natural. It is a special sensation of warmth and connection — it just feels right in your hands. Now, I don’t believe that inanimate objects hold some kind of energy, but you just don’t get the same sensory experience while holding the gourd made from the artificial materials, like steel or silicone.
Calabash is soft and warm to touch and you can call me crazy, but I just love the sound of bombilla scraping the inside walls of a calabash gourd when I mold the mountain of yerba! Oh, and the natural smell of the dried calabash — it deserves a separate paragraph!
Anyone, who drank mate out of the calabash gourd at least once, knows the unique and unmistakable smell that it has. Calabash gourd, especially when wet, has a very cozy and warm aroma of sweet bread, cookie dough and, of course, pumpkin.
The smell still greatly depends on the actual part of the calabash plant, and gourds made from the thicker top part are usually a little less odorless, which is great for a more pure yerba mate experience, but those thin fragrant gourds made from the bottom part of the plant are simply too great to miss out on them!
One of the greatest advantages of calabash gourds over glass, clay or ceramic gourds, is their toughness. Even though a properly cured gourd is dry as a bone, it still consists of a relatively soft and spongy plant material, so there is a very high chance that if you accidentally drop your calabash from the tabletop, it will survive the fall.
I have a tiled floor in my kitchen, and I dropped most of my calabash gourds onto it without any functional or even cosmetical damage. Obviously, decorations like leather wrapping help with absorbing the blow, but even my simple calabash gourds survived multiple falls without a single crack. The same cannot be said of my clay gourd (RIP).
Develops a footprint
Calabash is a porous material that absorbs whatever you put in it, so it will get ghosted with yerba mates that you will brew in it regularly. Over time a calabash gourd will get more and more personalized, imparting your current mate with some of the flavors of past yerbas, making it taste more delicious according to your preference. For instance, if you like Uruguayan yerba mate and drink it most oftenly from a particular calabash gourd, even an Argentine mate prepared in that gourd may have some Uruguayan notes to it, thus becoming better suited for your taste.
If you have ever prepared mate in glass or steel gourd, you know that it is extremely hard to maintain the mountain of yerba — the walls of these gourds are so smooth that yerba simply slides off of them, forcing you to pour water over all of the yerba and making mate too unbalanced.
Rough walls of the calabash gourd, on the other hand, have better grip on the yerba mate, holding the mountain in place and letting you carefully mold it to achieve an even taste from first to last refill.
Disadvantages of calabash gourds
While I keep preaching how amazing calabash gourds are, there are certain aspects where they are not ideal, so you need to keep those in mind and be prepared for some of the shortcomings.
Not the most resilient
Yes, calabash gourds prove to be very tough when compared to glass, ceramic or clay, they still cannot match the resilience of steel and silicone gourds. The latter are virtually indestructible unless you deliberately try to ruin it and you can drop steel gourds on the hard floor or accidentally crush it down in your backpack and in the worst case scenario there will only be some dents and nicks.
Require at least some maintenance
You can forget to clean your steel, silicone, clay or ceramic gourds, and they will still be fine, no matter how much time has passed. These materials will not develop mold, are super easy to clean and do not need to be dried. Calabash gourds on the other hand require at least some maintenance, which I will cover later in this guide.
May not provide purest yerba mate taste
One of the advantages of calabash gourds — developing a footprint of yerba mate — may be a disadvantage for some people, who prefer to experience the most pure taste of their yerba mate. In my personal experience, this footprint was never so prominent that it altered the flavors of mate. In other words, the same yerba mate prepared in calabash and non-calabash gourds usually tastes identical to me.
Nevertheless, when I’m writing out a taste report for my yerba mate reviews, I prepare the reviewed yerba in the clay gourd, just to guarantee that I experience the most unadulterated flavors. Plus, I’ve heard enough stories from other people who claim that the ghosting is too noticeable in the calabash gourd, so it will be unfair of me to sweep it under the rug.
Now that we have a better understanding of what to expect from owning a calabash gourd, we can take a look at distinct shapes and forms they come in. Not all calabash gourds are created equal as they are made from the different parts of the calabash plant.
Poro aka Classic
Made from the bottom and thin part of the pear-shaped small calabash plant, poro is arguably the most popular kind of calabash gourd. This classic shape is what you’ll see on a wikipedia page; it is depicted in mate emoji on every platform; it is most likely what you picture in your mind when I’m talking about calabash gourds.
Poro is most popular in Argentina and outside of South America. The price range and the level of craftsmanship of poro gourds is arguably the widest of all shapes — some of the most expensive as well as some of the cheapest gourds will likely be of a poro shape, making it a low-commitment investment to start calabash gourd collection.
Another feature of classical poro shape is a significant curing time that will be needed to get rid of the large amount of debris because they’re made from the juiciest and pulpiest part of the calabash plant. Also, if you decide to get the poro gourd, make sure to be careful with an inner stem that can be found at the bottom of the gourd. You should let it fall off naturally and be extra careful with your bombilla while scraping out used yerba mate or building the mountain — breaking the stem off too early will create a hole at the bottom of the gourd and permanently ruin it.
Porongo aka Cuia
A thicker top part of the calabash plant, also called porongo in Spanish, or cuia in Portuguese, gave its name to the mate gourd made from that same part. The shape of porongo is made by cutting the top of the calabash plant right below the curvy part, creating an hourglass-shaped gourd with a wide opening.
The top part of the calabash plant has much thicker walls, making porongos and cuias more resilient and tough compared to poro gourds. It is also free of the debris that are found in abundance in a lower part of the plant, so they require less curing than poro gourds.
Although popular all over the world, this shape is mostly associated with Brazil, where people need a large gourd with curved shape and wide opening in order to easily manage very powdery erva mate and prepare chimarrão effortlessly without clogging the bomba.
Pico de porongo
If the artisan decides to cut the top of the calabash plant a little higher than the porongo, right above the curve of the gourd, we will end up with pico de porongo shape, which translates as “peak of porongo” from Spanish.
Pico de porongo gourds have basically the same qualities as the regular porongo gourds and without that curvature are a little bit closer to a poro-shaped gourd, although the opening of pico de porongo is still much wider compared to poro, which makes it easier to pour water and manage the mountain of yerba.
Pico de porongo shape is universally popular, but it is mostly associated with Uruguay, where people like to take their mate on the go and look for a sturdy gourd with wide opening that will allow them to easily mold the mountain, which is crucial for more powdery yerba.
The word galleta in Spanish means *biscuit *or a cracker, and is also used to describe a mate gourd made from the squished calabash, that resembles a cookie in its shape. Galletas are much less known outside of South America, making it a rare and precious piece in any collection.
Another great thing about calabash gourds is the sheer variety of decorations that make each gourd look unique and stand out from the rest. It is extremely rare to find a completely non-decorated calabash gourd, so it’s important to know what kind of decorations or combinations are available in order for you to be able to find your perfect calabash gourd.
Arguably the easiest decoration to do on the calabash gourd is a simple carving. As I previously pointed out, dried calabash is a soft yet durable material that is very amenable to engraving manually with burin, or with a help of any rotary tool.
Even though it is easy to carve calabash, it doesn’t always have to be simple! Gourd artisans are able to carve absolutely astonishing and exquisite patterns and drawings of various difficulty.
Porous nature of calabash allows it to be easily colored either by staining it with various dyes, or treating it with heat. You can most oftenly see it in conjunction with carvings, where certain parts of calabash are colored to add extra depth and beauty to a carved pattern.
In order to give the calabash gourd a more finished look, a metal ferrule may be added to cover the opening of the gourd where it was cut. Ferrules on calabash gourds are typically made out of aluminum or tin, but fancier artisan gourds will most likely sport an alpacca ferrule. Alpacca aka German silver, is an alloy of copper, nickel and zinc, and is named due to its shiny and silvery appearance, as well as relative softness which enables artisans to customize ferrules by engraving various patterns and letters.
Some shapes of the calabash, like poro, allow it to sit on its own. However, most of the gourds require some kind of stand in order to sit confidently on a flat surface.
Most popular stands are usually made from epoxy resin that is glued to the bottom of the gourd, or metal wires that hug the gourd tightly and form some sort of legs that allow it to stand.
Last but not least, some of the calabash gourds are wrapped in leather. Quality leather not only makes a calabash gourd look and feel premium, but also serves a purpose of a stand when the leather is being pinched and sown at the bottom to form a “torpedo” which allows it to comfortably sit on a flat surface.
In order for such gourds not to fall apart, they always come with a metal ferrule that holds a tightly-wrapped leather on the edge of the opening. As with other things made out of leather, such as belts, shoes and bags, leather-wrapped gourds can be dyed in a great variety of colors, as well as etched or branded, which some manufacturers use as an opportunity to stamp their logo.
Taking care of the calabash gourd
Hopefully at this point you can see why I am such a big fan of calabash gourds. Maybe you even decided to add one or two to your collection! If that’s the case, it is crucial to know how to properly maintain and take care of the calabash gourd so it will last you a lifetime. You will need to keep a few things in mind, but taking care of the calabash gourd is not that cumbersome as you will see in a second.
Curing the gourd
The first thing that you will most likely notice after getting a brand new calabash gourd is that it looks very unfinished inside due to the debris. These are dried remains of a calabash pulp that was not completely cleaned after the gourd has been hollowed out. Debris is perfectly normal and safe, so don’t worry, it won’t harm you — at the end of the day it’s just a dried plant matter of an edible fruit. However, you would still want to get rid of it in order to have a nice and clean gourd for your mate.
The process of cleaning out the calabash gourd and preparing it for a regular usage is called curing. During the curing process the gourd will eventually strip the remains of the dry pulp and inner stem, and also naturally seal pores and micro-cracks and will turn into a sturdy and reliable vessel for mate.
As I mentioned earlier, the amount of debris will vary depending of the part of the plant the gourd was crafted from — bottom part of the calabash contains more pulp than the top part, so poro gourds will have much more debris than cuias and pico de porongos, that may even have no debris whatsoever.
So how do we actually cure the calabash gourd? You may have already heard or read it somewhere that you’ll need to fill the new gourd with yerba and water, and leave it like that for 24 hours, but my experience tells me otherwise — calabash gourd will cure naturally through its intended use over the course of the few weeks, without you having to do all these foregoing rituals.
I haven’t noticed any positive nor negative effects from soaking the gourd for 24 hours — you will simply not be able to scrub out all of the debris in one go, so in my opinion it is redundant. Instead, you can simply start using your new gourd as you would normally. After finishing the drinking session you carefully scrape out the used yerba mate along with loose debris with a spoon bombilla or slotted bombilla (you need bombilla with a somewhat sharp edge), and eventually your calabash gourd will get nice and smooth on the inside. You will also need to keep in mind that the gourd in these first weeks may become too damp and practically leaking due to the fact that dry pulp will hold onto the moisture and not all of the pores of the calabash have yet been successfully sealed, so a little bit more time will be needed to let the gourd dry between uses. After curing is completed, the gourd will stop leaking and will dry much quicker.
Sometimes, after the first few drinking sessions, you may notice that your gourd, which was uniformly light and beige inside, will start to develop some weird green spots. Don’t worry, it’s not moldy! Mold is usually white and fluffy; these green spots on the other hand are a natural and inevitable consequence of the curing process and are a result of oxidation and picking up color from yerba mate. Remember, calabash gourds once were fruits, which are subject to oxidation — take apples as an example. If you cut an apple and leave it for a few hours it will oxidize and turn dark, but will still be perfectly edible. At the end of the curing, all the green spots inside the gourd will even out, and it will become slightly darker and a bit greener than it was before.
Dry the gourd completely between uses
You might have heard those horror stories about mildew that grows inside calabash gourds, and it can become the reality if you don’t let the gourd dry out completely after drinking mate. Develop a habit of scraping out the washed yerba as soon as you finish your mate session, then rinse the gourd so there are no yerba particles left inside of it, and finally blot all the moisture both inside and outside the gourd with a paper towel.
Put it in a ventilated spot, preferably some place with a sun exposure, for instance a windowsill, so the gourd can be dried out by the airflow and sunrays. Fun fact: UV light kills the bacteria, that’s why mold likes to grow in dark and moist environments. It won’t be the end of the world if you leave the gourd full of wet yerba overnight, but if you will do this little ritual after each drinking session and expose your calabash gourd to some sun and air, I can guarantee that you will never see any signs of mildew inside of it.
Important notice: don’t ever use dish soap on your calabash gourd, and god forbid you put it into a washing machine! The spongy walls of the calabash gourd will absorb those chemicals and it will ruin the gourd forever.
Polish the metal
If your gourd has a metal ferrule or metal garments, especially made from metals that tarnish and get scratched easily, like alpacca or aluminum, it is good to polish those metal parts from time to time so that your gourd stays looking sharp. Mate is a multisensory experience, and I personally enjoy the visuals of my gourd and bombilla as much as the taste of yerba mate.
There are lots of polishing compounds available for any type of metal, and the process itself does not take much time, which makes it an easy but very effective way to renew the old scratched up gourd. I typically like to polish my most used gourds at least once a year.
Oil up the gourd
Both “nude” calabash and leather-wrapped gourds benefit from an occasional rub of oil, which makes material more elastic and less brittle. As with polishing the metal, oiling up a gourd is a great way to make it look newer and more vibrant in color, as calabash tends to get more and more pale after numerous washes and exposure to the sun.
I like to oil up my calabash gourds at least once a month with refined coconut oil. If you don’t have it on hand, any edible refined unscented and non-flavored butter or oil will do the trick. I take some butter, melt it in my hands and thoroughly rub it into the calabash or leather, trying not to miss a single spot. After that I leave it for a few hours so that the butter can penetrate the material, and then wipe the rest of the oily remains with a paper towel. Don’t worry if you think that you’ve put too much oil — the gourd will absorb all that it needs, and the rest can be easily rubbed off.
What calabash gourd to get?
If you are a serious matero, I would suggest you to have at least a few calabash gourds — that way you will always have gourds in your rotation that you can use while your current gourd has enough time to dry out completely.
In additional to a regular-sized gourd, get yourself at least one small gourd (less than 100ml/4oz) in case you don’t have much time but still want to enjoy mate; and a big one (more than 300ml/10oz) for those times when you’d prefer to drink mate all day long, so you won’t have to reload it with fresh yerba.
I also find that some people prefer porongos or pico de porongos for their wide opening that makes it easy to pour water, while others favour a tightly-packed mate that a classical poro shape offers them. If you haven’t yet found your shape of choice, I recommend you to get both and see what suits you best.
If you want to enjoy chimarrão in the most traditional and effortless way — get yourself a Brazilian cuia. Curvy shape of cuia makes it easier for you to build a proper mountain of erva which is a must if you don’t want to have your bomba clogged with such a powdery mate.
And finally, if you really want to be a top-level matero and if you’re not afraid to spend some money — get a premium calabash gourd, otherwise known as mate imperial. Wrapped in high-quality leather with an alpacca ferrule, this is the kind of gourd that is being used by celebrities and football players. Most vendors even allow you to customize it and engrave your name or whatever you want.
Hopefully, now you see why calabash gourds are so amazing! You won’t find anyone drinking tea or coffee out of calabash gourd; they proved themselves as an integral part of the world of mate and a staple of a traditional mate experience. Do you already have calabash gourds in your collection and how much? Or will you be getting your first one? Which one did you pick, and what is your favorite?
Mountain of yerba