While riding in the bed of a friend’s truck, one couldn’t help but notice the blooming sage and endless grain fields in Coberg, OR. The picturesque scenery and northwest sunshine had put us in a dream-like state as we pulled up to The Agrarian. It was the perfect day for a beer; we jumped out of the truck and headed for the bar(n). A 10-acre property 20 minutes outside of downtown Eugene is home to The Agrarian, whose slogan simply states “We grow beer.” The Agrarian boasts a small Italian inspired restaurant, bar space and farm that guests are free to explore.
With 4 full time and 10 part time employees, The Agrarian is not a large brewery. The owner, Ben, and his wife still have off-site jobs at the local power company. Their conviction to their vision is something to be admired. Emptying out their personal savings instead of relying on bank loans to start the business, they really took a chance on what they love.
The owner, Ben, met with us as we all sipped beer and told us his story. Purchased in 1984 by his parents, the property primarily is host to chili pepper fields. “We tested our soils and found they were really high in calcium and magnesium, so we stuck with nightshades… Of course, we now use some of them to make our own hot sauce for the restaurant, and my parents still maintain them for other enterprises as well.” As Ben grew up, his family kept handing him more and more of the land to manage. “I’m a farmer. I grew up here. I would go to the farmers markets on the weekends with my parents to sell the veggies I grew on a corner of the property… My brothers would say ‘You missed cartoons!’ but I would come home with 100 bucks a week so I was okay with it.” Truly a family entity, his brother lives on the property and is the head brewer for the business. Ben’s parents also still live on site, primarily maintaining the pepper and vegetable fields. There are three generations of family farmers on the property, and the healthy systems are clearly products of this consistency.
There are many elements to “growing” beer, all of which this all-inclusive facility is intimately involved with. From sourcing all of their grain within the Lane County area to growing 2 acres of hops and herbs as well as harvesting honey directly from their property for the seasonal brews, Ben and his staff have got the local food scene down pat. They barter their spent brewers grain for chevre, beef, and pepperoni from Deck Family Farms, and even source heirloom garbanzo beans and popcorn from across the street at Lonesome Whistle Farm.
With their dependence on local food sources, however, the business in many ways doesn’t act like a standard brewing facility. “We move with how the seasons move,” Ben explains, “And recently we’ve discovered we really need to behave seasonally.” With the shift in crop availability as the seasons change (and the lack of infrastructure at the restaurant, which mainly relies on the summer sun, beautiful fields, and picnic tables for its summery appeal), this season The Agrarian will be experimenting with closing for the winter. There will never be enough beer to feed the demand at this scale, however, and we’re sure his dedicated customers will be feeling the loss.
Ben stressed the immanent need for micro-processing facilities of both food products and brewers grain. As of now that is “the only piece missing to close the [local] circle.” The grains, though harvested from their neighbor, must be sent out of the county to be malted. The Agrarian addresses this issue by primarily serving raw beers (using non-malted grains), which cut down on trucking costs and allow the real taste of the grains to be maintained through the brewing process.
The Agrarian is clearly a communal hub; as the evening progresses, the picnic benches slowly start filling for an evening of live music, beer, and sunshine. Bi-annually, the property is host community campers who come to harvest hops for the season’s brews. Hiring chefs from the area to cook for the volunteers as well as having 24-hour music, this is truly a community-enlivening event. For two days, people come out to get closer to their beer, their food, and eachother.
Even with all of this hype about the local food movement and the amazing efforts from all of the farmers we have met in the Willamette Valley, Ben offers a humbling reminder. “We did a survey, and even with all of our push for local food, less than 1% of the food that Lane County eats is actually grown in Lane County.” The reality of where we really get our food is a sobering thing. Today, readers, we leave you with that. Tomorrow let’s get it to 2%.