Mezcal Real Minero Bats 1000
No, to my knowledge mezcal Real Minero does not have a crack baseball team. But the Oaxacan brand of artisanal (and ancestral) mezcal does excel at different games. That is, it is at the forefront of both clay pot mezcal distillation, and of research and development regarding agave. And concomitant with the latter has been Real Minero’s recent promotion of cross – pollination of agave (locally known as maguey) through bats, or murciélagos. You see, without bats our traditional mezcal industry may falter for lack optimum sustainability through genetic diversity.
The night of June 30, 2018, Dra. Graciela Ángeles Carreño of Real Minero convened a diverse group of about 20 individuals, each involved in one way or another with the Mexican cuisine or spirits industry. They were predominantly Mexicans, but included a couple of Americans and Canadians; academics, chefs, food or agave spirit authorities/promoters, and writers. The primary objective was to explain and illustrate the importance of bats for the propagation of agave and hence the viability of mezcal as a growth industry.
The evening began as an educational and promotional tool for Real Minero to explain two key aspects of its operation: its propagation and sustainability research programs and their application; and how it produces mezcal utilizing traditional in-ground ovens for baking, both rudimentary and more sophisticated custom designed machinery for crushing, wooden slat vats for fermenting, and clay pots (ollas de barro) for distilling.
Real Minero is for all intents and purposes the most well-known export brand of mezcal distilled in clay pots. On balance it produces olla de barro distilled agave spirits utilizing a greater diversity of maguey species and sub-species than any other small scale family distillery (palenque) in the state of Oaxaca, if not all of Mexico.
After a scrumptious outdoor candlelight dinner of tlayudas con cecina and café de olla, accompanied by a couple of Real Minero’s signature mezcal ensambles, the two main events began. Biologist and bat expert Dr. Matías Domínguez Laso and his team took charge of the balance of the night’s activities.
Now many have read of the importance of murciélagos in the reproduction cycle of Agave tequilana Weber (blue agave) used to make tequila. But the literature is relatively scant regarding the key role which bats play for cross – pollinating agave used in distilling mezcal. Not all bats feed off of the pollen of the flowers which develop on the stalk (quiote) of the agave as it reaches maturity. And by corollary not all species of agave are cross – pollinated by bats. A slide show of about an hour in length with explanations by Dr. Domínguez Laso was the medium employed to provide us with a comprehensive bat education.
The murciélago is a mammal. Mexico boasts 564 species of mammal, third largest number in the world, 138 of which are bats representing eight families. Their size, depending on the region of the globe, ranges from less than an ounce, to heavyweights with a wing span of about three feet. While perhaps surprisingly there is a great deal that science still does not know about bats, we learned a tremendous amount about these fascinating animals, aside from the crucial role they play in agave reproduction. For example we received detailed explanations with the aid of photographs, drawings and charts, regarding bats’ anatomy. We also learned about similarities and characteristics in common with all vertebrates including other mammals (even human beings), as well as insects, reptiles, birds and fish. Then particular facts about bats were shared: means of flight and communication; diversity of habitats and diets; migratory patterns; geographical distribution; susceptibility to disease, as well as both carrying and transmitting of infection, fungus, etc.; threats to the continued existence of certain species (i.e. endangered species) due to primarily human intervention; and of course distinguishing bat facts from fiction and myth.
The specie of bat which pollinates Agave americana, which we observed later in the night at work on the quiotes of a few magueyes, is typically Leptonycteris yerbabuenae (commonly known as murciélago magueyero). It flits from flower to flower, extending its long tongue into the center of each, thereby extracting the agave nectar (which can be up to 22% sugar) that provides sustenance enabling it to remain in flight. It gets covered with pollen (about 50% of which is protein) which it transfers to a new flower on a different quiote, resulting in cross – pollination. This ensures genetic diversity of the specie of agave reproduced in this way.
A significant problem is that with the increase in demand for mezcal, many growers are reluctant to wait until the quiote (and therefore flowers) appears, preferring to harvest after cutting the quiote prior to flowering, thereby inducing the succulent to preserve its nutrients (carbohydrates) in its heart (piña). A higher yield of a “better” mezcal results, but there is no cross – pollination. This reduces the food available for the murciélago population which prefers nectar from the flowering quiote. There are other sources of nutrition for bats; just as there are hummingbirds, bees and other insects capable of doing the cross-pollination job of murciélagos. But bats do an extremely efficient job, maximizing agave genetic diversity, size and strength.
Mono – cropping is the alternative, with reproduction achieved by harvesting clones of the mother plant, that is, pups or hijuelos produced by the agave sending a number of runners out under the ground with babies then popping up. Alternatively clones can be produced from unfertilized flowers. In both cases, however, genetic diversity is lost. The agave is weaker, smaller, and more susceptible to disease from there being genetically identical plants. And, in the end there is less nutrition for the bat population.
Perhaps the problem is more serious in tequila producing regions of Mexico. Even if cross – pollination is promoted, because there is almost exclusively blue agave being cultivated as opposed to the much broader diversity of agave species grown for mezcal distillation in Oaxaca, a blue agave plague can spell disaster for much of an entire industry. And, this may result in danger of extinction of certain bat species which rely on agave nectar for their sustenance. One study found that a particular specie of bat in and around Jalisco was reduced to 1,000 in number in 1988. Fortunately, as a result of a concerted effort by a diversity of scientists, government agencies and interest groups in both the US and Mexico, by around 2015 the population had rebounded to roughly 200,000.
Real Minero is cognizant of all this, and ensures that a satisfactory percentage of its maguey under cultivation is reserved for the murciélagos. Other brand owners and growers are also setting aside enough agaves for the bats and so as to ensure genetic diversity of their crops.
Later that night after the lecture and slide show had been completed, we walked a short distance to where, with the aid of lamps, we were able to observe perhaps 200 or more bats. The flowers open at night, prime time for feeding. The bats were flying from quiote to quiote, extending their tongues into and then out of the flowers. But the rapid succession of their feeding frenzy made it impossible to trace the tracks of any one murciélago. However all that we had come to learn had finally come to life, literally, our necks stretched upward, our thoughts in awe.
Alvin Starkman owns and operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com). He takes predominantly visitors to the region, including Mexican nationals, into the central valleys of Oaxaca and beyond to teach about mezcal and pulque and the cultures of their makers; spirits aficionados, novices, photographers, documentary film makers, and those entrepreneurs interested in exporting Oaxacan mezcal to countries throughout the globe.