Agrarian Ales Has Closed

Agrarian Ales quietly ceased brewing operations this winter (add it to the long list of recent Oregon brewery closures). The farm-based brewery was a destination for family-friendly outdoor fun, good beer, and local food near the town of Coburg, just north of Eugene. The brewery’s website is offline, and one source, a former employee, said that there has been no activity at the brewery since January.

The reason for the brewery’s closure seems to be tied to mismanagement of funds, along with legislative issues related to farm breweries, rather than any issues of quality or sales specifically, although 2018 presented the brewery with a host of challenges that adversely affected its revenue.

Agrarian Ales was founded by brothers Ben Jr. and Nathan Tilley in a renovated barn on Crossroads Farm, which is owned and operated by their parents, Ben and Debbie. Nathan worked at Corvallis Brewing Supply and began planting hops on the farm and homebrewing in the barn several years before the brewery opened. Agrarian Ales officially opened on Dec. 21, 2012, and became a quick hit over the following summer.

“The initial idea was to be a production brewery with offsite distribution,” Ben Jr., Agrarian’s owner, says. “With customers coming out, it became clear they were interested in the destination, so we put our energy toward that.” The annual hop picking party was a highlight event of the year for Eugeniuses. It featured live music, art, and the opportunity to get sticky and tipsy while plucking hops off the bine from the adjacent 2-acre hop fields. People often camped out at the farm that weekend, adding to the revelry and camaraderie. The hops were dried on racks in greenhouses and then baled, and went into Agrarian’s beer; the brewery never purchased hops from anywhere else.

The annual Hop Picking Party at Agrarian was a great opportunity for people to learn about their favorite beer ingredient. Photo by Aaron Brussat

Throughout its lifespan, Agrarian embraced the community, and hosted live music, yoga & beer, comedy, and other interactive events over the years, all the while showcasing a range of beer styles made on a very rustic brewing system. A covered outdoor kitchen was outfitted with a wood-fired pizza oven that produced excellent pies using flour from nearby Camas Country Mill and all local ingredients including the cheese, a queso blanco made in Salem.

Tobias Schock was the brewer at Agrarian from its opening in 2012 until 2016. During that time, he established relationships with local organic grain growers for adjuncts like heirloom Abenaki corn (all ingredients in Agrarian beer were organically grown) and made seasonal beers in a wide range of styles, from the Dandy Porter (with dandelion root harvested from between the hop rows in spring) to Poblamo!, an amber-ish ale with poblano peppers from Crossroads Farm. He experimented with wild ferments and blending fruit and beer in barrels. Toby’s saisons were true to form: geared to be fresh and locally-sourced. His Belgene series bridged the saison-IPA gap, while the perennial Field Bier topped the refreshment scales.

Agrarian’s beer was sold from Eugene to Portland, the Coast, and Bend at its peak. It began serving beer at the Eugene Saturday Market during the summer. Many local restaurants had a permanent Agrarian tap handle, including Party Downtown, which featured Agrarian’s beer at its first ever beer dinner, a 4-hour, 10-course affair in 2013. Schock also collaborated with The Bier Stein for its 10-year anniversary brew, a complex of Belgian-style strong golden ales called Decadence. The brewery even received a mention in Stan Hieronymous’ book Brewing Local (2016). Agrarian also participated in many events and festivals, including the Portland Farmhouse & Wild Ale Festival.

Schock left Agrarian in 2016, and is now head brewer at The Wheel Apizza in Eugene. In an interview, he cited repeated incidents of abuse of company money as one of his reasons for leaving.

Agrarian was popular since its inception. At first, in order to comply with OLCC regulations, the tasting room was only allowed to sell up to 4oz. samples of beer. “People were buying taster flights of the same beer,” says Schock. “We didn’t have any food for sale. Ben was a fan of the meat and cheese boards, so we started making cheese boards.”

The demand for food prompted the construction of a wood-fired oven, which evolved into a complete outdoor kitchen over time.

“Nate and his dad and uncle built an open structure over the oven. At this point we were telling our health inspector that it was an outdoor kitchen, and that we were preparing food inside and cooking it outside. The kitchen was operating on the edge of legality. The county had heard about it numerous times, and said a Special Use Permit was required. Lane County gave them a full year to get back to them and reapply.” Those permits were never completed.

All the while, business grew. The brewery was tight-knit, and ran on a small staff, some of whom pulled double duty in the tasting room and in the fields tending the hops. Infrastructure, like a real restroom (rather than porta-potties), parking, and facility upgrades, were gradually added to accommodate the several hundred people who visited the brewery each day from Friday through Sunday. Sometimes, the kitchen would bake all of its pizza doughs before the end of the day.

During that growth, Ben acted as a public ambassador for the brewery. He spearheaded the Community Public Offering, which helped to build a proper bathroom, barrel-aging and warm rooms for bottles at the brewery, and increase the acreage of the hop yard. He also worked offsite events and festivals, representing Agrarian with passion. Having spent his life in the area, he preached the local and organic philosophy of the brewery and knew the history of the local farmlands.

Ben Tilley, right, with Jason Blazar of Friends of Buford Park & Mt. Pisgah, center, and Sean Kelly of WildCraft CiderWorks at the first annual Pisgah Heritage Festival in 2018. Photo by Aaron Brussat

In late 2016, Schock, along with then-manager Todd Perlmeter and Nathan Tilley, formed a board of directors, which included Debbie Tilley, and hired a lawyer to negotiate a transfer of ownership that would remove sole ownership from Ben. “There were conversations about negotiating to get Ben out of power, and me and Nate and Todd to have ownership shares. That infrastructure was set up, so we went to the board with our plan.”

Then, the brewery started receiving notices from the IRS about unpaid payroll taxes from the previous year, along with a large business credit card bill. “We had to lay people off that we’d told would be able to work through the winter,” says Schock. At that point, he wrote a letter to the board with line items of what needed to be fixed in order for him to continue working there. When that went ignored, he and Perlmeter submitted their resignations.

When Schock left, Nathan Tilley took up the reins in the brewery, along with local homebrewer Nathan Howard. They began producing more English, Belgian-style, wild, sour, and barrel-aged ales using local and seasonal ingredients for sale at the brewery and retail outlets in beautifully labeled 500ml and 750ml bottles. They also started a Grand Farmhand Society, a beer club that featured exclusive bottles, and an online bottleshop.

The brewery got into a scrape with Lane County authorities in the spring of 2018, when officials contacted the brewery regarding the Special Use Permits for its tasting room. The building inspector viewed the building as commercial, rather than agriculturally exempt as it had been before, and deemed the covered outdoor tasting area to be inside the building, and that it did not meet commercial code. Hence, the brewery had to exclude patrons from that area, and moved its service bar to the edge of the covered area.

Agrarian appealed to the public through social media, and launched an unsuccessful Kickstarter campaign to raise money for a new tasting area. It scaled back and then closed its kitchen, and worked with food trucks to serve food away from the original covered tasting room area. Large tents were set up to replace the covered seating area.

Word spread of the bureaucratic conflict, and many people erroneously thought the brewery had been shut down for good. To add confusion, because the brewery could no longer shelter patrons the way they had, it would close during inclement weather. This caused a dramatic decline in business through the summer of 2018. The brewery closed to the public for the season after its annual Halloween party, but continued brewing. “Everything just came together here in the last few months that made it difficult to find its way forward at this point,” said Ben. While he says the bottle sales were successful, the quick shift from onsite to offsite sales did not work out.

Walking around a hop yard with a beer brewed with those hops is a rare opportunity, but was common at Agrarian Ales. Photo by Aaron Brussat

Agrarian employees once again proposed an ownership transfer, and even had an opportunity to open a taproom in Eugene, which would have drastically increased the brewery’s revenue. Part of the challenge, Ben says, was that “Agrarian is known for the location out on the farm, so creating a spot in town, trying to bring what people liked about Agrarian into town was hard.” He stated that he did not want to be a restauranteur, and indicated that the location would have relied on food trucks.

When it became clear that there would be no change, the employees stopped working due to lack of funds and no response from Ben about reviving the company. There is still unsold beer in tanks, barrels, and bottles.

According to Ben, “None of the options ended up panning out. After what happened with the county, it cost us a lot of momentum and sales and growth. There was an effort with legislature to define farm breweries and something called a farm cafe that would allow us to continue our food operations the way we had been. They passed the farm brewery language but not the farm cafe language.”

Ben Tilley is still holding onto the licenses for the brewery, and hanging onto a thread of hope that it may someday brew again, “at least until we figure out what would be the best option moving forward… We have to put the brewery to bed for now and focus on the farm.”

Agrarian’s closing is a huge loss for the Eugene beer scene, not just for the beer but for the fun and freedom of drinking and eating and playing around on the farm. It was a place where adults could be kids for a while and escape the street sounds and sights of Eugene without sacrificing quality of food and beverage. The beer was always unique; both Schock and Tilley brewed with their own personalities, using the cobbled-together system as best they could, often with wonderful results.

sunset in the hop hard at Agrarian Ales

Sunset in the hop yard at Agrarian Ales. Photo by Aaron Brussat

Aaron Brussat
Aaron Brussat

Aaron Brussat is a complex living organism with an interest in all things fermented. He started writing about and working in the beer industry in 2010. His experience stems primarily from spending six years at The Bier Stein as a beer steward, homebrewing since 2005, and passing the BJCP and Certified Cicerone exams. Highlights along the way include numerous collaborations with local brewers, curating beer dinners at The Bier Stein, and traveling to Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Czech Republic, Peru, and New Zealand (as well as many parts of the U.S.) for a chance to drink beer at the source.

Discussion

  • Marky Mark
    Marky Mark
    Thu Mar 28, 2019 1:31 PM

    Who has any in stock in PDX?

    • jillian
      jillian
      Wed Apr 3, 2019 5:27 PM

      We have a bit of the kaffir lime & meyer lemon sours at the 23rd Ave Bottle Shop! Sad to see Agrarian is going away! 🙁

    • Lee
      Lee
      Wed Apr 3, 2019 5:41 PM

      We have some Agrarian:
      Farmomenon, Pearadigm, Colossal Blue, Dew Drop, and Field Bier Saison
      here at the 23rd Ave Bottle Shop 2290 NW Thurman St. Come on in and get some while its here!

      • Anthony St. Clair
        Anthony St. Clair
        Tue May 28, 2019 9:34 AM

        Great writeup of such a difficult situation.