The sun was setting as we descended over Michoacán. This land is known for its lakes and thousands of small watering holes shimmering below illuminated our path as we move closer to Morelia. The beautiful colonial city sits just to the south of the massive Lake Cutzeo which feeds the surrounding agricultural land.
The landscape is lush and green, but not tropical. Pine and oak forests stretch across the rolling hills out past Urupan to the west where a volcan juts out of the already rugged landscape abruptly. The stark cliffs of the transversal volcanic belt encapsulated the fertile valley and connect with the Sierra Madre Del Norte. This is agave country.
And with agave come the bats. Bats are huge focus on our trip. Our host, David Suro, is a founder of the Bat Safe Agave pilot program and all around agave nerd. The Bat project is an effort by a handful of biologists, conservationist, and agave producers to mitigate the deleterorious effects of modern agave cultivation on the Mexican bat populations.
It turns out, bats seem to be the main pollinators of agave, able to carry vast amounts of pollen across 100 km a night. They’re after the nectar and follow the agave bloom across Mexico from north to south. No one has done the research -on the bats or the agave pollen. Until now.
But a number of modern factors have seriously inhibited this age old cycle as direct result of modern agave cultivation. In The tequila producing states, growers are mandated to plant just one varietal of agave, Tequilana Weber. This plant is a prolific multiplier and reproduces asexually in a mutiple ways. For that reason, the agricultural cultivation over the last 100 years has relied entirely on the use of clonal material. One tequiliero told me that all the agave in Jalisco was descended from just two genetically distinct lines.
Because growers don’t need the seeds they don’t need pollination. And because agaves entire life cycle rests around storing energy to create a quixote flower, growers invariably cut the unneeded appendage in fears that they’ll lose sugar content to the energy intensive biologically significant task.
The consequence, huge swaths of migratory routes not providing the food the bats once relied on. This has pushed the bats to the edge of exctintion and by the transitive property threatened the genetic diversity of sexually reproducing agave everywhere.
The main agave grown in Michoacán is Cupreata which is unique in its inability to produce clonal offshoots. The growers of Cupreata desperately need the bats. A complicated situation for a complex spirit.No spirit over more raw biological diversity than those made from agave. We’ve only scratched the surface of the spectacular array of potables being produced in Mexico and Michoacán is producing some of the very best. Let’s hope that never changes.