Agrarian Revolution

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Growing hops, beer, and community at Agrarian Ales

STORY BY KATIE CHAMBERLAIN
PHOTOS COURTESY OF AGRARIAN ALES

The road to Agrarian Ales, just north of Eugene, winds gently through the town of Coburg, full of antiques shops and charm, before giving way to flat farmland nestled between the Coast Range to the west and the Coburg Hills to the east. Here, near the confluence of the McKenzie and Willamette rivers, rich soils support a thriving, decades-old farming community, along with a smattering of new agrarian endeavors.

On Crossroads Lane, hop plants climb trellises nearly 18 feet high, creating towering, leafy walls of green in the summer months. These hops — 15 varieties marked with hand-painted signs — stretch out over two acres and supply 100% of the hops used to brew Agrarian’s farmhouse-style beers. 

In 2007, brothers Nate and Ben Tilley returned to their roots on Crossroads Lane and planted 50 hop plants on Crossroads Farm, their parents’ 25-acre organic farm. As they home-brewed beer with these hops, they crystallized their dream. Then, in 2013, the Tilleys collaborated with brewer Tobias Schock to convert the farm’s 1941 dairy barn into a modern, seven-barrel brewery called Agrarian Ales. 

Agrarian started with two Old World and eight Northwest-bred hop varieties, including Cascade and Willamette. “We put in hops early on to explore what it was like to grow them,” Nate recounts. “We were quickly enamored by the way they grew and how vigorous they are.”

In late August 2016, Nate and Tobias check on how the hops are maturing just a few paces outside the brewery. Nate plucks a cone, rubs it in between his hands, and smells it to assess the ripeness. They had decided to harvest Fuggle, an Old World English varietal, first that year. For the next two weekends, more than 400 people will trek out to Agrarian’s property to lend a hand with the harvest as part of their annual Community Hop Harvest.

Harvest days follow a simple and predictable rhythm: The field crew cuts down the leafy hop bines, loads them in the back of a pickup, and takes them to the picking area outside the brewery, where the bines are chopped into manageable lengths. Community harvest volunteers gather at redwood picnic tables over tall tulip-shaped glasses of beer, plucking hop cones and tossing them into long wooden trays. It’s simultaneously festive and meditative, with the cheerful buzz of a bluegrass band in the background. In exchange for plucking, volunteers receive tickets for beer or food.

“Every hop we use is picked by hand,” explains general manager Todd Perlmeter, who joined Agrarian in 2014. “It’s a tiny detail that adds to the magic. There are lots of those out here.” Hand-plucking the hops ensures optimal quality for the cones, though the model is pragmatic at its core: “We simply don’t have the harvesting equipment; it’s very expensive,” Nate explains. “In the beginning, we created a few trays and started plucking by hand. It’s very rudimentary and simple. Over the years, we haven’t evolved out of that. It’s working really well. The only things we’ve added are more trays and more people.”

Following the harvest, the cones are dried, baled, and stored for use throughout the year. For the first time this year, the hops never left the property. In a moment of ingenuity that defines the Agrarian spirit, Nate constructed an onsite hop baler in only two days after learning that the baler they had previously used at Mount Angel had been dissembled just before harvest.

Two years ago, Nate elected to remove the original Cascade hops after problems with downy mildew. He selected new varieties in collaboration with Tobias, based on compatibility with organic growing practices, aromatics, and flavor. Old World English hops, like Challenger, impart fruity and subtle citrus notes. In 2016, Agrarian used all of the Challenger hops to make a Pale Ale. This crisp and clean pale with light hints of orange quickly became a staff favorite.

Agrarian’s beers embody the seasons on all levels, from the yeast to fruits to the place – considered the mark of a traditional farmhouse beer. Beyond the hops, the brewery grows raspberries, heirloom corn, onions, garlic, and tomatoes for its beers and the farm kitchen, which allows the brewers and the chefs to retain tight quality control over their ingredients. “We’re always pushing to harvest as quickly as we can, usually the same day,” Nate says. “The flavor is really pushing us forward. We’re able to hit these peaks of ripeness.”

“This is especially true with the peppers,” Todd says. “They will change drastically during the ripening period. It allows Tobias to walk out into the field and decide if he wants to pick green jalapenos or if he wants to get them in two days.” Crossroads Farm is perhaps best known for its nearly 50 varieties of chili peppers. Nate grew up growing, harvesting, and roasting these prizes, and this agricultural knowledge translates into an impressive rotation of chili beers, like the ¡Poblamo! amber ale, which uses fresh, fire-roasted poblano chilies straight from the field.

It follows that Agrarian beers are best consumed fresh, and once a batch is gone, it’s gone. “We’re like the Zen of breweries,” Todd says. “It teaches you non-attachment. You’re able to fully enjoy it for a brief moment – then it’s gone until next year. We have about 35 beers in our library that are used on a regular basis and about 15 new experimental beers each year.”

In summer, the popular Sylvan, a summer herbal saison, eschews hops in favor of yarrow flowers and river sage flower tips from the farm, wild-crafted Sitka spruce tips, and organic triticale from nearby Camas Country Mill. Autumn brings the Cucurbita, a mild pumpkin brown that uses the farm’s sugar pie pumpkins and barley malt, roasted in the wood-fired oven. In the winter, the Dark Sparge, a robust porter, emits deep chocolate and espresso aromas and a rich body.

An assortment of wine and whiskey barrels line the floor of Agrarian’s tasting room and brewery. Inside some of the charred oak bourbon barrels is Chipotle Porter, created with farm-grown red jalapenos and organic barley smoked in the smokehouse adjacent to the brewery. Other barrels hold year-old fermenting raspberries, harvested from the farm’s berry patch. “Due to our size, we’re always trying to be creative and figure out ways to increase our cooperage and storage,” Todd explains. “It’s a great avenue to pull in a ton of berries. Instead of freezing them, we let them ferment off their own yeast for one to three years before brewing with them.”

In mid-autumn, the tap list bursts with fruits of the fall harvest, like Pear of Hands (sour saison with Asian pears) and the Libertine, a golden apple ale featuring a single variety of Liberty apples. “Those come from right across the road,” Todd says, pointing to apple and pear orchards. Neighboring farmer John Sundquist has grown organically for over 30 years at Rivers Turn Farm. He offered Agrarian the opportunity to harvest whatever they could take care of. Agrarian painstakingly sources all ingredients it doesn’t produce on-site from nearby farms and producers.

Much like its beers, Agrarian’s food menu starts in the field. “We go out and see what’s ready, and the recipe evolves from there,” Nate says. The kitchen specializes in farm-direct food that complements the beers, including pizzas with seasonal toppings that are cooked fresh in a hand-built, wood-fired cob oven, seasonal salads, and cheese and charcuterie plates.

Agrarian takes food and beer pairings to a new level. For instance, the kitchen may serve a chili with the same jalapenos that are used to brew the Michelada, a beer brewed with tomatoes and jalapenos. Or heirloom corn may be ground for masa to make tamales — the same corn that’s used to brew the Indigenous Ale. “Our business is 100% farm based,” Todd says. “It’s the true backbone of Agrarian.”

The agrarian roots also run deep through the brewery’s staff –they all get their hands dirty. Nate grew up farming with his family at Crossroads, and Tobias hails from a family of corn farmers in North Dakota. All of the tasting room and kitchen staff are involved in growing and harvesting food, herbs, and hops.

“It really empowers the staff, gives them a sense of ownership, and bridges a strong connection to the farm and products,” Todd says. “They can say, ‘I picked and pressed all those apples in that beer. I weeded all the onions on that pizza.’”

“We try to keep those connections alive and thriving on all levels,” Nate adds. It’s a fulfilling model that they hope others will emulate.

Agrarian Ales
31115 W. Crossroads Lane, Eugene
541-632-3803
The tasting room is open from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. Friday;
from noon to 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
The Farm Kitchen menu changes weekly.

Katie Chamberlain is a freelance writer focused on food and agriculture based in Eugene.

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