On the latest episode of MUNCHIES: The Podcast, we spoke to Rodrigo Medellín, legendary bat conservationist and scientist, about how both he and bats are helping save your glass of tequila.
Here's the transcript of our conversation in MUNCHIES: The Podcast with Rodrigo Medellín, edited to the main interview. For the full discussion, you'll have to listen to the audio above.
I grew up in Austin, a place known for being a sort of bat central in North America, if you will. Bats are scary to people. They unfortunately have a bad image in the public eye. So where did that bad image come from? It's a really funny and sad story. If you go back to Pre-Columbian times across Latin America, the bat image was extremely positive. They worshipped bats for every single thing. The Mayan calendar has one month, the zotz month (the month of the bat). It is almost equivalent to the month of October, which is a very happy time for the Mayans, because that is the time of the harvest. There's even a group of indians in Southern Mexico called the Tzotzis, or, "The men of the bat."
So they are batmen? Exactly. That's a town of batmen. Around the 1500s, the term "vampire" was only associated with a human being that was dead that would wake up at night to find humans to suck on their blood. There was absolutely zero connection to the shape of a bat. In 1519, Hernán Cortés came to Mexico with Bernal Días del Castillo, and the first night that they spent in Veracruz, their horses and soldiers were bitten by a tiny little flying thing, or what we call a vampire bat today.
Castillo recorded it as "little animals that fly out at night and fly through the forest, landing on our soldiers and horses, biting them, sucking their blood, and eating their brains."
So fast-forward to 1860 in Ireland, when an incredible writer by the name of Bram Stoker was writing a novel, Dracula. In it, his vampire was a human being who was looking for blood in other human beings. Suddenly, Stoker realized that he needed a way for his vampire to move long distances, and fast. And since he was a history buff, he went back to the conquest, flipped through the pages, found the Mexican blood-sucking bat reference, and said, "Done! My vampire is going to turn into a bat, fly through long distances, turn back into a human, and bite people." This was the beginning of the negative image that bats have taken on in today's society.
But when you work for the conservation of bats, you have to start changing the image of these animals by convincing society about the importance of bats for themselves, for the ecosystem, and for everything. Trying to convince people to not fear bats anymore has been my life for as long as I can remember.
Tell me the first time that you stepped into a cave and fell in love with bats. It is branded like fire in my brain. I can clearly see that cave. And every time I can, I go back to that cave and visit and the same feeling surfaces up again. It is in the state of Guerrero on the way to Acapulco from Mexico City. At that time, I can tell you that I was the expert on African mammals in Mexico. A professor at the University of Mexico took me to this cave where we found six different species of bats co-existing together. When William told me about all of the species, my mind exploded. So then I started to look at them in detail, and that's when my passion exploded. I realized, This is it. This is where I belong.
Right now in the food and drink world, mezcal and tequila are both having a moment. Bats aren't the first thing that comes to people's minds when they hear about the issues that are going on with blue agave, which is what tequila is distilled from. So I was really surprised to learn that the lesser long-nosed bat, which sort of looks like a unicorn, is helping save the blue agave. First, we can cover a little bit about the three main ecosystems that bats provide for us. One is that they are the top predators of agricultural pests around the world: rice fields; corn fields; wheat fields; cotton fields; all kinds of fields. If you don't have your bats, you lose your crop.
The second is the dispersal of seeds in tropical forests around the world. In countries like Mexico, you can go to markets and find an incredible diversity of tropical fruits. At least half of those fruits are dispersed by bats, from zapotes to guavas and figs.
And the third is the pollination of many ecologically and economically important species of plants like trees and big cacti in the Southwest, which are all pollinated by the lesser long-nosed bat. If you go to an agave or cactus field, the bat is busy doing the exact same thing as a hummingbird or butterfly, hovering while extending their very long tongue into the cup-shaped flower while licking out the nectar and pollen.
The nectar is a reward that the plant is giving to its pollinators. In the process of licking the nectar, the bats sticks its head into those flowers and its entire face is then covered with pollen. If you see them during this process, their faces are yellow or white depending on the pollen, of course. So then that animal—which is completely covered in pollen—visits another flower and that is when the sexual reproduction in the plants takes place.
So then enter tequila. The original name of tequila is mezcal de tequila, or mezcal from the town of tequila. In those years—and we're talking about approximately 80 years ago—mezcal was the beverage of choice for construction workers. It was basically bootleg, illegal, and extremely cheap. It didn't have a high profile in the upper crusts of Mexico, so some marketing genius decided to drop the name mezcal and just call it tequila. For all practical purposes, it's just one more type of mezcal.
But then it became such an incredible commercial success that they started developing it into a denomination of origin product. So they identified a certain region—four states in Western Mexico—that were the only places where you could plant blue agaves and produce tequila.
Today, there is no country in the world that has more species of agaves than Mexico, where there's over 200.
All the agaves accumulate sugars over the course of many years. Depending on the species, it might take them anywhere from six and up to 20 years in terms of building up the amount of sugar inside the plant to send that incredible flowering stalk up into the sky. Many times, the stalk is bigger than the actual plant which costs the agaves their lives. They invest the entire amount of sugar they have accumulated in their life span into that one reproductive event.
Tequila producers found out that if you harvest the plant before it flowers, all of that sugar is contained and concentrated in the nucleus of the plant. And that is what you roast and press. The juices, which are extremely sweet, are what you leave to ferment and distill into tequila. The same thing happens with mezcal. How do they reproduce the plants if they are harvesting them before they bloom?
So you have those plants that are not allowed to flower, which produce little clones of the same plant at the base of the plant. The tequila producers are using those same clones to re-plant and re-plant and re-plant and re-plant the same fields. Little by little, they keep identifying the plants that grow the fastest. The resulting plants that have the highest sugar content are clones that they choose to continue to re-plant and re-plant. In the course of 50 years or so, they have purified the varieties of blue agave into millions of millions of plants, about 160 million plants in 400,000 acres of Western Mexico, with just two clones.
Basically genetic diversity is zero!
They still do it to this day. Twenty years ago, I got in touch with the tequila industry and told them, "Well, you may be creating the perfect storm. You have lost all of the genetic diversity of agaves because you will not allow the plants to bloom, and you will not allow the bats to do their work to keep a genetic diversity up. How about allowing maybe 5 or 10 percent of the plants to bloom as a payback to the incredible service that bats have given you in terms of having those plants and as a safety insurance to keep disease at bay and help build up a little bit of resistance to the disease?"
Their initial response was: "Oh, thank you Dr. Medellin. We'll call you. Don't call us." And they never got back to me. That was 20 years ago.
So ten years ago, I tried again. I said there may be a disease brewing that is going to affect your fields. They responded with, "Thank you, don't call us. We'll call you," again. Well, eight years ago, the disease showed up. I swear I had nothing to do with it. It turns out that a combination of a fungus and a bacteria is attacking the agaves that's known as "the sadness and rot of agaves." It affects the agaves in their fourth to fifth years, and they harvest them in their sixth to eighth years. This is terrible news for this industry.
So the industry came back to me and asked, "What was the story about bats and pollination again?" So I told them again, "OK, let's sit down and discuss this, but I cannot guarantee that allowing the bats to come back and pollinate your plants is going to defend your plants from the disease or is going to fix the problem. I cannot promise that. It's not going to happen in the next five years. Maybe it will in ten years, because you've lost all of the genetic diversity and you will have some plants that will be resistant."
So then, they said, "alright, let's do it."
The tequila industry in Mexico is a two billion dollar industry. Forty thousand families have incomes that are derived from the tequila industry, so it's huge. I am not working with the big companies yet, but we are currently working with four companies that are produce approximately six or seven brands that produce about 100,000-200,000 liters of tequila every year.
These people are the key individuals that started this process of developing it into something that is now taking root in recognizing the value of bats as agave pollinators and as providers of genetic diversity. That's the tequila part.
Now, let's look at the mezcal part. Mezcal comes from eight different states in Mexico. They use ten or 12 different species of agaves and just because of that, the field of mezcal is a lot more interesting than tequila. There is a lot more variety and diversity than spirits like whiskeys and single-malts. With mezcal, it all depends on the species, climate, soil, altitude, and the master distiller.
Master distillers distinguish the distilling process into two categories: the head of the distillation and the tail of the distillation. The head is full of methanol, and methanol is not good for you. It's what gives you a headache and makes you go blind. The tail of the distillation—which comes at the end of the distillation process—is full of terpenes and other secondary metabolites of a plant, so it is also toxic.
Now if you only keep only the body, you end up with vodka: zero taste, full alcohol, full methanol, and nothing else. So it is up to the master mezcalero or master distiller to see how much of the head and the tail to leave in the final product. And then you have some really amazing drinks.
What is your favorite way to drink mezcal? Absolutely neat.
People have told me the weirdest theories about this worm. Some tell me that if you eat the worm, you get high. That is absolutely not the case. Putting a worm in there is a perfect waste of the worm because it is incredibly tasty when roasted in a salsa. You take a hot, warm tortilla right from the comal, smear half of an avocado, sprinkle it with a few of these worms, and oh my god, you are in heaven. I'm talking about the larvae from another moth that is eaten by other bats.
So it's sort of like eating bat food? Yes, the larvae are technically adult bat food.
They come out in May and June from Mexico City to the pyramids of Teotihuacan. That is the stretch of land where most of our agave worms, gusanos de maguey, come from. You see them in the street and on the highways being sold under big signs that say: "Gusanos de Maguey."
I always buy them live, bring them home, put them on a plate, and the next morning, the worms have woven a layer of their own silk on top of the plate to protect themselves. I look at them and say, "Sorry guys, you are going to die very soon." So then you put a pan on the stove, let it heat up, and put your worms in there. They are going to start twirling and swirling, and will fry in their own fat. They end up crunchy and are incredibly tasty.
It's like the cycle of life is completing itself. Exactly.