I first chanced upon Agrarian Ales at a brewers festival in Corvallis, Oregon shortly after moving to the craft-beer saturated Willamette Valley. I had heard the name once before, by way of a Portland based non-profit accelerator that was bringing Agrarian through a Community Public Offering (similar to a traditional Initial Public Offering but only in Oregon). The beer I had at the festival was a refreshing break from the hop obsessed brews of Oregon, a saison by the name of Notre Gran Ami, and I was interested in their operation in Eugene, so I made the trek over. This first trip led to another trip, and another, and then another. After several visits I have come to the conclusion that the only downside to Agrarian is the fact that it is 35 minute drive from my apartment in Corvallis, but to me it’s still my local brewery. It is not only the well crafted seasonal beer, but it is also the atmosphere and their overall goal of creating an estate brewery. The Tilley family, which has cultivated the land on which Agrarian sits since 1985 as an organic farm, and their compatriots have grown something better from their land than just fresh organic produce, it has become a place for good food, good beer, good friends, and good farming.
Originally selling produce to local markets, Crossroads Farm, the Tilley family farm, has grown to become a stable piece of the organic farming community in the Willamette Valley. As they grew they never forgot their original motivation to operate as a farm with a strong community surrounding them and to keep the land in a healthy and natural condition, an ideal that fuels the modern operation. In 2007, after years away from the farm, the Tilley boys returned to help farm the land. However, their passion was not just for organic produce, and upon their return they planted hops and herbs for use in the farmhouse brewery they dreamt of.
It is now 2016 and Agrarian Ales, as the farmhouse brewery has come to be named, is flourishing, as is the farmland. Now boasting hop bines and brewers herbs, as well as a lot of organic produce. Agrarian Ales is steadily growing their presence in the valley, not only as a brewery, but as a destination for families. On any given weekend the yard is full of beer aficionados, as well as families, enjoying the brews, the home-grown food, or a pop up concert.
To accommodate their growing community, Agrarian needed to expand. At the beginning of 2016 Agrarian announced their Community Public Offering, (a fund raise through small artisanal investments made by Oregonians. Unlike kickstarter, they’re purchasing equity, not a t-shirt) which generated $95,000 to be used for development and also grew the company by about 100 investors. This cash infusion has enabled more storage, updated facilities, and allowed Agrarian to remain a community-centered organization. The greater goal for Agrarian is to create a brewery that is completely self sufficient, in regards to ingredients for food and beer. This will require an expansion of the farm to grow and process grains and herbs on site. The strengths of a Community Public Offering (CPO) are that while raising money to grow your business, you can open the door to family, friends, neighbors, and beer enthusiasts to take ownership of your business without being tied to a single investor. This fundraising method allowed Agrarian to maintain their ideals while growing their focusing on their community, an aspect of the business that are just as important as the beer. It also hasn’t damaged the family as Ben Tilley, President of Agrarian Ales, described in an interview, “They’re [The Tilley family] very happy to share their lifestyle with our community.”
The beer is phenomenal, don’t get me wrong, but Agrarian is not successful purely for its great tastes; there is an atmosphere that goes along with the food and drink. It is important to note that this is not merely a brand that Agrarian has built for marketing purposes, it is a piece of the farm as organic as the peppers, as Todd Perlmeter of Agrarian explains, “We are growing our family, not just with our coworkers, employees, and our direct family, but we are growing this [Agrarian Ales’] family with our customer base. And when people come out here for a day they feel like they have a little bit of home here.” I find that feeling whenever I visit Agrarian. The staff feels more akin to friends than staff, and no patron seems a stranger. We are all there for the same purpose and there is nothing else that we would rather be doing at that moment. This idea of focusing on establishing roots instead of growth and expansion is very important to everyone at Agrarian, be it the brewers, servers, or farmers and it is this commitment that makes drinking a beer at Agrarian such a unique and wonderful experience.
This particular visit was different than many in the past as I had brought along my friend Rebecca, who happens to be Artisan Situation’s Lead Editor and Photographer, to assist in interviewing Todd for this story. We arrived around the middle of a windy Spring day. It was overcast, with fresh wind rustling through the trees and hop bines, the grounds were abuzz with children and families, and incredible beer flowed from the taps. We walked into the barn, past the picnic tables and board games and up to the bar. The whole place is a little disheveled, but this is not unusual for a farmhouse brewery, where space is always a commodity and storage areas often stack up on top of each other. We took a look at the tap list, which is artfully drawn on a massive chalkboard. That day the tap list featured a range of seasonal options, from dark malt forward options to Belgian styles, lagers, and hoppy american saisons. What stood out was Belgene Just Got Vetter a dry-hopped Belgian Pale named for the 1000 gallon Van Vetter milk tank that was used as the hopback and Small One a light and herby saison that I ended up taking home with me.
All seasonal and probably all to disappear or change within a few weeks of our visit, as they had every time I had come for a visit. After considering the order in which we would try all their beers, we ordered our first flight and walked out to the backyard while we waited for Todd to wrap up in the brewery. The back of Agrarian overlooks the farm, more reminiscent of a vineyard than a brewery. There is a playground, an oversized Jenga set made of 2x4s, stands of bamboo, flower gardens, a yurt, and seating for plenty of visitors. The one thing that sets this biergarten apart from the other open space breweries that I have visited is the laughter and free play of the the children. The feeling of freedom that a child must feel at Agrarian cannot be found at places of drink very often.
After showing Rebecca some of my favorite spots in the yard we sat and went through our flight, the full-bodied Chile-corn Lager stood out for its unusually fresh and spicy nature. As we sat we watched kids running about with dogs and parents talking with their friends. Sitting there you can feel the atmosphere that Todd had described to us as the Agrarian brand. This was a place to come and be happy, not to get drunk. There aren’t televisions to distract you from your friends and family, the music is barely noticeable -- it adds to the conversation -- and no one is trying out their latest pickup lines on unsuspecting visitors at the bar. It is wholesome, a word I never thought I would ascribe to a taphouse. Todd quickly arrived and our conversation switched to the other patrons, and families, around us. He explained that the he has seen taboo of drinking around children begin to disappear as a younger generation of parents sees craft beer and spirits as more of an approach to life, rather than a way to escape reality. This is part of the magic of Agrarian, a brewery that can be as much as a destination for the child as it is for the parent. Parents tell Todd that their kids want to visit the brewery as much as they do. The open space and abundance of other children makes finding new friends to play with easy, as I witness on each trip to Agrarian, nostalgic for my own childhood.
The families, the beer, the food, and the atmosphere are not the only reason Agrarian is an oasis. In Linn County, Crossroads Farm and Agrarian are known for their traditional organic farming practices. When you drive down one of the lone roads that divide Linn County, it’s impossible not to notices the monocrop fields surrounding you. Linn County has proclaimed itself as the largest producer of grass seed in the world. This means monocrop fields, machine-based farming, and non-organic pesticides are being used on all of the land surrounding Crossroads Farm and Agrarian Ales. This doesn’t result in any direct conflict, but as Todd explained to us part of the land that they own is leased out to a nearby farmer who sprays his crops with pesticides and this is complicating future plans. The Tilley family intends to take that land back and begin farming vegetables and grains on it. However the process to transition to an organic field from a conventional field can be a multi-year affair due to the accumulation of pesticide and poor soil quality. Agrarian and some of their organic partners in the area are not afraid of the challenge, and embrace it as a personal mission. It is part of cultivating their roots in the area.
This transition is part of the ultimate goal of producing everything needed for the brewery and restaurant on site. This work began with the ambitious project of producing their own hops. Rather than limiting themselves to two or three hop varieties, they chose to experiment with many hops, currently well over a dozen. Two fields in total serve the hop needs of Agrarian for the moment. The primary field sits at the far edge of property and hosts thirteen 100-foot long rows of 22-foot hop bines. The secondary field is newer and seen more as the research and development part of the operation. This field is the same size as the first, but filled with a larger variety and offers Agrarian the opportunity to experiment with different practices. For example they chose to orient it in the opposite direction as the primary field so as to take advantage of the natural wind flow in the valley. They assume that by orienting the field to allow wind to flow through it the hop bines will be less susceptible to pests and diseases. Their experiments have thus far paid off, and the newly transplanted hops look very healthy, and will soon be ready for harvest, which is done by the whole of the Agrarian community. Come harvest season a festival of sorts will occur that is akin to traditional harvest practices, wherein the entire community comes together to gather, process, and celebrate the year’s crop. Todd explained to us that this practice has been lost in the pursuit of higher efficiency through hired farm hands. Returning to the traditional practice allows the community to become even more invested in the beer that they enjoy throughout the year. A feeling not foreign to those that have kept a garden or farmed, everything tastes better when you’ve worked for it. This non-contemporary approach is very much in the spirit of Agrarian. From the spontaneous fermentation of blueberries to beers made with wild Pineapple weed, which we had a good time hunting for during our tour. Agrarian is innovating and experimenting in anyway they can, because it gives them an opportunity to do something new, and (hopefully) better.
The brewery is very old school. There are not master control panels or automated systems. It is quite small. All of the equipment fits on top of a 10x10 concrete slab inside of the main barn. This is not a setback though, as the team at Agrarian doesn’t need or really want more space or modern systems. They enjoy staying true to traditional farmhouse practices, which are subject to influences from the weather or season. Because they are a seasonal producer Agrarian does not have one or two flagship beers that can be had any day of the year and even from year to year the beers that do recur are still different. This hasn’t set them back though and Agrarian has made a name for itself all over Oregon, and have done so without alienating themselves from the other craft brewers in the area. In the brewery you can find equipment borrowed from neighbors or purchased secondhand, such as a fermentation tank from Plank Town, a Eugene brewery. In fact much of the brewery has been built with the help of other breweries in the area. Todd explained this mindset as more of an open collaborative between everyone in the area and that they are trying to better the industry instead of defeating each other.
As Todd was wrapping up his tour he let us in on one more project that they are currently working on at Agrarian. Through Friends of Buford Park & Mt. Pisgah, a Eugene nonprofit, they had transplanted wild hops from Buford Park to the yard behind the brewery at Agrarian. The hops were now growing up a dome like structure made with some Agrarian-grown bamboo. Soon they will be harvested and brewed into a beer, the proceeds of which will be donated back to the nonprofit to further their mission of protecting the natural ecosystem of Mt. Pisgah while promoting recreational opportunities. I see this project as a representation of Agrarian’s unspoken mission of doing good work through good beer.
Spaces like Agrarian are not something that are chanced upon every day or in every community. These are the spaces that offer the entire package. World-class beer, fresh and sustainably produced food, an authentic physical space, and an atmosphere that refreshes you with every new experience. At Artisan these are the spaces that we are constantly seeking, with every far flung road trip or new adventure in our own community. Whether it be food, beer, coffee, community, or a combination of the four we need to find it, learn about it, and tell the world about it. If you have found a space like Agrarian for yourself, cherish it, and then send us a message about it so we experience it with you.
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