By Andrew Stuart
It’s been a staple for as long as people have lived within its range. From Texas to the Mexican interior, agave has been food, fiber and drink, and its distilled spirits – tequila, mezcal – have been called “the spirit of Mexico.”
Demand for those spirits is surging – agave is now very big business. It could be “loved to death.”
A coalition of distillers, enthusiasts and scientists is pushing for a different way. Sustainability, they say, means respecting the plant’s ecology – including its vital bond with certain creatures of the night.
Two architects of the Tequila Interchange Project – and its “Bat-Friendly Tequila” initiative – will speak next month at Agave Festival Marfa.
“My first bat came into my hands when I was 12 years old,” Rodrigo Medellín said, “and that basically sealed my fate. From then on, I never really looked back.”
Medellín is a renowned conservationist and scientist. He works with jaguars and bears. But bats are his passion – he is, as a BBC documentary declared, “the Bat Man of Mexico.”
And long-nosed bats – “agave bats” – are among his favorites.
Lesser long-nosed bats and Mexican long-nosed bats winter in interior Mexico. In spring, females head north. Lesser long-nosed bats travel to the Sonoran Desert. Mexican long-nosed bats raise young in the Chihuahuan Desert, including Big Bend National Park.
Agave-flower nectar is critical food on these journeys. The bats’ tongues are adapted for “mopping up” agave nectar. In the process, they provide agaves a vital service.
Daytime pollinators – hummingbirds, bees – are drawn to agave blooms. But agave pollen is viable at night. For agave to produce seeds, bats are key, Medellín said.
“Bats and agaves are in a no-way-out kind of situation,” he said. “The sugar concentration and the amount of nectar that is being produced and the configuration of the flower are all geared toward pleasing and attracting bats rather than other pollinators.”
And the enthusiasm for agave spirits threatens that bond.
Agaves take from six to eight years to mature. For spirits, they must be harvested before they bloom. As production increases, there are fewer and fewer blooms on the landscape.
Cultivators have relied on agave offshoots, which are genetic clones. As early as 1994, Medellín was warning the tequila industry that its methods not only threatened bats, but had created an agave monoculture that made the plants vulnerable to disease.
“And, well, they were very polite and very nice to me,” Medellín said, “and they said, ‘Thank you very much for coming. This is a fantastic project. Goodbye.’”
But Medellín wasn’t alone in his concern.
A native of Guadalajara – the tequila heartland – David Suro moved to Philadelphia in 1985, and opened the city’s first upscale Mexican eatery. Some questioned the name: Tequilas Restaurant. In the U.S. then, tequila was a low-quality product favored by college students.
But Suro was ahead of his time. The perception of agave spirits has since transformed.
In 2005, Suro started his own brand – Siembra Spirits. Proceeds have gone to agave research and education.
Suro and Medellín met three years ago. With others, they launched the Tequila Interchange Project. They urge farmers to let 5 percent of their agaves bloom. They verify that seed is harvested and planted. At participating farms, they’ve found that even more bats are visiting then expected.
It’s a short-term hit for producers.
“What it means in terms of spreadsheets, is that you’re not going to be able to use that plant for production of tequila,” Suro said. “Also, you’re going to have to add at least a year and a half or two years extra use of the soil, the ground.”
But the alternative could be dire. Tequila exports to the U.S. have jumped 200 percent in 10 years. The “genetic bottleneck” is a real threat to supply.
It’s an uphill battle. In recent years, major corporations have entered the tequila business – and the pressure is towards industrial-scale production.
But Suro said that respecting “Mother Nature” is essential to agave’s future. “Bat-friendly tequila” is taking root – 300,000 bottles were sold in 2014.
“There is so much to learn,” Suro said. “There is so much there still to discover, and to study, and to explore, and to taste – and to protect.”
Medellín and Suro speak on June 8. For details, visit agavemarfa.com.