We headed over to Temper in Covent Garden for an outstandingly educational afternoon with Dr. Rodrigo Medellin, known as the Bat Man of Mexico, for a chat about bats and their synonymous relationship with agave plants.
Did you know that 80% of agave pollination is due to the humble bat? Dr. Rodrigo Medellin, a professor at the University of Mexico, has spent pretty much his whole life studying and protecting bats, hence his nickname. Born with a love of animals, his first word was “flamingo”. At the age of 12, he held his first bat and his fate was sealed: he was going to work with bats for the rest of his life. We were lucky enough to see him talk about his passion, and learnt a lot about a species that isn’t given much good press. Move over Bruce Wayne, here’s the real batman.
With a glass of mezcal in hand, Medellin began to explain how bats and agave plants are linked. The relationship goes back around 12 million years, but don’t worry, we won’t start all the way back then. Instead, we’ll begin in 1988 with the lesser long-nosed bat, which are found in Central America and were, at the time listed as endangered. Fast forward 30 years, and in a truly historic moment in 2018 they were the first mammal to be delisted! This was no cue to relax, it was now time to focus on the maintenance and conservation of the species.
When Medellin first started studying the largest colony of lesser long-nosed bats in northwest Mexico, he and his team realised that the area was completely barren. Not an agave in sight. The nearest sources of agave were at least 40 or 50km away. Too far, Medellin thought, for such a small bat to fly just to feed. In a great plot twist, they found out that the bats were flying 90km one way to feed from agave plants. Medellin showed us a picture of a bat after feeding, its whole body completely covered in pollen. So, when these bats are flying 90km each way to find food, of course they’re spreading this pollen around from agave to agave like nobody’s business.
Agave is used to make mezcal, and Blue Weber agave is specifically used to make Tequila. The plants take between six to eight years to grow, and only sexually reproduce once in their entire lifetime, during which they bloom a magnificently tall flower. Medellin compared it to “a humongous penis”, and this flower is what bats feed from. However, this process takes up a huge amount of sugar and energy from the plant, so agaves that are destined to make mezcal are harvested before it can take place. Instead of natural reproduction, agave farmers take clonal shoots from beneath the plant and replant those.
The problem with this is that there is no genetic diversity from all these cloned baby agaves. Farmed agave have not been allowed to bloom in over 150 years, and in 2014 it was discovered that 270 million agave plants were clones of just two original agaves. Yep, our jaws dropped too. This means that they all have the same genetic makeup, so should a disease come along (or even the effects of climate change) they would all be equally susceptible. That’s a pretty precarious situation.
Medellin proposed a solution to recover the genetic diversity of the agave species and, importantly for him, to help conserve the bat population. If agave farmers allow just 5% of their agave harvest to bloom, that will feed 100 bats per hectare. These bats will then pollinate the agave, reviving the genetic diversity. Should the farmers do this, they will be able to claim their mezcal or Tequila as ‘bat friendly’, and will be able to display a special hologram on their bottles certifying this. So far, mezcal and Tequila brands Ocho, Tapatio, Siete Leguas, Siembra Valles Ancestral and Cascahuin have earnt the title. Clearly, it has been hugely popular, as every single bottle of bat friendly mezcal has sold out. At the moment, it’s impossible to get your hands on any!
Medellin is also urging bars and other establishments to display this information around the bar, in menus, and to educate the bartenders. The key is to offer people a choice (when some bat friendly mezcal returns to the market!) to help support this crucial cause.
Mezcal is one of the very few alcohols that doesn’t rely on a monoculture. Beer? Fields of barley. Wine? Grapes of one species (vitis vinifera) as far as the eye can see. Cognac? More grapes! Even Tequila is made only with Blue Weber agave. Mezcal can be made from any one of over 200 agave species, and this bodes for far healthier and robust ecosystems. When we asked Medellin about his favourite mezcal, he answered that from his top 10 at least half of them he would never be able to try again, and that’s fine with him. “Dwell in diversity”, he said, “or mezcal will become the next Tequila.” What he means by this is that, when you try a brilliant small batch mezcal, you must enjoy it and move on. Whoever said that variety is the spice of life was really on to something.
At the end, we asked Medellin what Master of Malt could do to help. He answered, “the industry is thirsty for information”, so if we can continue to convey the crucial role that bats play then awareness will only increase. The industry is also thirsty for Tequila, so spread the word, just like those lesser long-nosed bats spread that agave pollen! Seeing Medellin speak about his work was truly inspiring. He was passionate, informative and downright hilarious, and his cause is something that we can all get on board with.