After 10 years, Flat Tail Brewing is being forced to close for good. But brewer/owner Dave Marliave says this is more of a ‘see you later’ rather than a ‘goodbye.’
Flat Tail Brewing has served as an important touchstone for Oregon State University college students and Beavers football fans to discover craft beer in Corvallis. In the end it won’t be the pandemic that kills the brewpub as it is now, but leasing negotiations and bad faith promises.
Dave Marliave became one of the youngest professional brewers in the U.S. at age 20. After bouncing around at Oregon State University’s fermentation sciences program for a few years, Marliave landed a brewing job in town at Oregon Trail Brewing. He then went on to co-found Flat Tail Brewing in downtown Corvallis, Oregon in 2010. Over the years, Flat Tail has won acclaim for a vast ocean of styles from classic German-style Kolsch to dry-hopped sours and cucumber habanero beers. The downtown Flat Tail brewpub sits across from the Willamette River on First Street, and is a popular sports bar among Oregon Beavers football fans.
Like many breweries and brewers, Flat Tail and Marliave have had their struggles and New School contributor Aaron Brussat even chronicled some of them in our 2017 article. And the following 3 years have been just as difficult.
That was all before COVID-19 hit the U.S., and a new owner to Flat Tail Brewing’s building engaged in allegedly deceptive re-negotiations on a lease. A few days ago, Marliave announced on Flat Tail’s social media that their current situation was untenable and they would be forced to close and relocate.
I have known Dave Marliave for nearly 10 years, but we hadn’t seen each other in some time. When I saw the news that they would be closing, I had to shoot Dave a text, which lead to a phone conversation that was both heartbreaking and inspiring in terms of why the craft beer industry is so special.
Me: So, how have things been going before all this fucking shit?
Dave Marliave: Not great. But we had a few things in the works that we were planning on prior to COVID. I mean this winter, especially for first street, but all of downtown Corvallis was… it was rough. All the way back to November we were seeing numbers that were just way, way under previous years. And then we started seeing the Coronavirus fear impacts as early as like January, February in Corvallis. And by that time we got shut down.
Most business owners down here were just praying to be shut down because we were effectively already not doing anything by March. I guess we assumed that if the shutdown happened there would be a plan for the back end. Once we realized that there wasn’t, it was like, Oh, Okay, so now we’re shut down and there’s no help coming, cool.
So it’s been wild. It’s been a total ride because it’s just up and down. You know, every time we get a piece of news, everyone’s hopeful and then it ends up not working out the way we thought it would. Or, you know, we’re told we’re reopening like 24 hours before we can reopen and no one has the infrastructure to do it.
And I dunno, the communication has just been really frustrating on a state and federal level. And as one of the quote, unquote safest best counties in the country for COVID as far as infections – that’s an awesome thing, but it also means that we have one of the most hyper-vigilant populations and it’s just killing business.
There’s no one coming out. And I think we’re all just wondering what happens next.
Q: I guess I haven’t really caught up with you either since, you know, the whole General Distributors (GDI) thing, so I’m not really sure exactly how you came out of that whole thing. I know you basically pulled back to do just self-distribution right?
Yeah. So after GDI we moved to a hundred percent self-distribution and draft only, which seemed like a good choice at the time *laughs* and then basically we were just kind of on that maintenance level, looking for the next step forward, which for us turned into ‘how do we find a smaller footprint? How do we make this overhead more manageable? And that’s what we were working on right up until, until COVID. And obviously then we had to flip again and start figuring out, okay, how do we pivot this time? And then we got kicked out of the building. So it’s been sort of a new pivot every three months for the past two years.
I must have misremembered this, but a long time ago I thought you had bought the building you are in. And didn’t you even have some of the investment in that barbecue spot that was next door?
No. So my former managing partners owned the barbecue joint next door. I never had anything to do with that. We were about to buy the building ourselves and while I unfortunately still can’t speak to that a whole lot, I found some things that made me uncomfortable with signing that dotted line. So what happened was the gentleman that we were going to go in on the building with ended up working out an arrangement for the former building owner to pass on the discount he was giving to us to these new buyers. And the deal we had discussed was that rent would be decreased proportionately, because we were getting them a major discount on the building.
And then that never happened. They did not allow me to sign a new lease at the end of our lease term, which defaulted us into a month to month, which is why they were able to evict us without cause. Now full disclosure, we did miss two rent payments. The day before we got the eviction notice, though, we qualified for the IDL loan.
So we were able to pay 100% of our back owed rent upfront, and that was an issue having obtained this loan, that we were working on the Tuesday before we got evicted. Three out of the five of the building owners came in, and this was the first time they had ever seen the building.
We were talking about how do we keep Flat Tail alive in this building without moving? And the idea was to move it basically into just the brewery side and start kind of a small speakeasy style tap room in the back. Start moving into some co-packing, with some other local startup brands and pick up a smaller footprint for a more affordable rent.
I was told on Tuesday of that week that that sounded good. They said ‘just let me know what you can pay and let’s start working out numbers. Please get us the info by Friday or Monday.’ And then I got 12 eviction notices on Thursday with no other communication. So we were actively trying to figure out how to stay in this building and negotiating with the building owners about that.
I still have received zero explanation or communication whatsoever regarding why they’re doing what they’re doing. They will not let me talk to them without going through their legal counsel and their legal counsel has refused to answer most of the questions that I’ve sent their way.
So when did this all start going down?
Three weeks ago. So for the last three weeks we’ve mostly just been trying to navigate that and see if there’s any openings. Like I said, I’m unable to communicate with them, so there’s no chance that I know of us staying in this building. So my focus has just been on emptying the building.
And obviously I’m trying to find a new spot for us. And that’s another thing I can’t quite give the details on, but I do believe I have a spot to rehome the brew house. And I think we can be producing the beer within 30 to 60 days. But yeah, we are definitely going to be here. But there’s no possible way for me to really focus on anything else other than clearing this building out right now, because we’ve got 10,000 square feet that we’ve occupied for 10 years. And I was only given one month to clear that out and I have no employees. So it’s me and volunteer labor only. And that’s brewery equipment, kitchen equipment…
Everything has to go by this coming Monday. Wow. Yeah.
Yeah, that’s crazy. Do you think you’re going to be able to do that?
Yeah. I’m confident we can relocate the brewery fairly immediately. And I should probably be able to call you back next week with an update on that one. The restaurant portion I’m hoping to have back at some point in 2021, we’re going to have a clearer picture of what the food service industry is going to look like.
But right now there’s just absolutely no way I’m willing to invest in a new spot for the restaurant. It just doesn’t make any sense. I mean, Corvallis is dead right now. Businesses, restaurants are dropping left and right. I don’t know how you could possibly make food work in this town currently.
I mean shit, If Block 15 isn’t open for dining service, how the fuck does anyone else make it? And for retail, for selling beer, obviously draft sales are still going to be shit.
Have you thought about going back into doing packing, like canning?
Yeah, I’m looking at mobile canning. And then I’ve also got my eyes on a 500ml Maheen line for bottles for our higher end sour program. That said, when we find a new home and when we start again, it will not be the same. And that’s that’s for practical reasons and also personal ones.
Even though I’ve been the guy behind the beer since day one, the way Flat Tail was put together was never really me. You know, I’m not the sports bar kind of guy if you’ve ever sat down for more than three minutes with me, that’s pretty obvious. I didn’t know what a fucking safety was until I worked here for five years.
So there will probably be a new brand name. And then if at some point soon we’re able to find a spot and we live in a climate where a restaurant can actually prosper profitably. That’s when we might bring back the Flat Tail brand. But, the beer coming out of this brew house will be something new.
So, so when you move out on Monday, Flat Tail Brewing, you know, at least as we know it, the brand, the name is, is dead?
Yeah. Sounds worse when someone else says it… I’m hoping to kind of resurrect that occasionally, you know, we might do a batch of Tailgater Kolsch during Football season, we might do a little throwback, little green.
I’m definitely gonna at least brew a barrel of Damn Wild for JV’s season. But I’m ready to not just be the guy doing all the work. I’m looking forward to having this brewery kind of exemplify everything I stand for for once. And so I am certainly planning on a rebrand to say the least. For the time being you’re not going to be seeing Flat Tail beer.
What do you think is next for breweries like your own?
No, buddy. I don’t know. And I think anyone that that’s do know is probably full of shit. Uh, this is a brave new world. I mean, prior to COVID the past couple years, you know, some people are calling it, the bubble bursting, whatever we oversaturated the market and that’s hard to debate.
That we’re independent and we’re not doing 20,000 barrels a year, plus we’re surviving based on the brew pub model and the brew pub model might disappear. So I don’t know what, what comes after that?
To use our location as an example, we have a hundred seats normally, plus another 36 outside during our peak season, we could have 140 people inside that we’re serving at one time. Even with phase two restrictions, our effective max capacity was like 30 people. You can’t reduce every factor that plays into profit without reducing fixed costs and fixed costs aren’t going down. So how do you make that work? That’s going to be the big question and while I’m simultaneously kind of excited to see how we innovate as an industry. I want to see what people come up with to make this work, but I’m afraid.
For everyone who isn’t able to innovate like that, or for people in positions financially, or markets that don’t support them, etc. I don’t know what that’s going to look like, but the brew pub model is no longer a saving grace. It’s now potentially the most volatile thing out there. I mean, now it’s you got to go a hundred percent package and you have to find a creative way to get that package product to the consumer because just dropping it off at Safeway doesn’t work. So how do we make beer and get it to the consumer with the same level of personal brand engagement that we’ve been providing for almost a decade now in a completely new way, it’s the industry just has to evolve overnight or else it’s not going to exist. Yeah.
Do you think there is a chance that some of us can come out stronger on the other side of this?
Well, absolutely. That’s going to happen. I mean, there are some wonderful local examples, Block 15 with their direct-to-consumer program, their new distribution company, 2 Towns Ciderhouse producing massive amounts of hand sanitizer pivoting virtually overnight into, you know, 99% packaged goods.
There are companies that are killing it. I think you know, better than I do. I think Gigantic Brewing would be a great example in Portland, from what I see of their direct to consumer. You know, there are people that have the following, the beer and the capital to make this pivot. It’s the people who didn’t have all three of them. Not just people who don’t have the capital, but if you had the capital, but not the emotional, physical, mental bandwidth to make this hard pivot, that’s what’s not gonna work. I don’t know that there’s enough room for everyone to be successful in this new wave. I hope there is, but I…I just don’t know.
We’re going to have to be more creative than we were when you know, it was the second wave, post 90’s meltdown, and innovation in that case really had to do with the product and with branding. And then again, over the last two or three years, I think branding and marketing has been the major home for innovation in the industry.
Now you have to innovate with literally how you get the product to the consumer. You know, people want to come into a pub and shake your hand and get to know the beer and feel the vibe of the building that doesn’t happen anymore. So how do you sell your vibe? How do you just display that in a package product and a direct to consumer method that allows you to both be profitable, but also not just be another soulless brand on the shelf?
That’s a big question. And you know, like I said, a lot of people are knocking it out of the park, but that’s not going to be everybody.
We all know that there’s ways to support small brewers by buying direct, but what can people do to support you and Flat Tail?
I guess I should start by saying we’ve already received so much support. I’m going to try to not fucking tear up because this has been one of the most difficult things for me.
I know I’ve been in this industry for a long time, you know, I’m 32 years old and I’ve been brewing for 13 years. So I know people know me, but I’m also kind of an asshole and seeing the way the community has come out during this process has been just soul shattering. I mean last Monday, it felt like half the fucking town showed up.
I mean, we had five trucks, three trailers, you know, Dave Wills from Oregon Trail Brewing – my first boss in the brewing industry, he’s coming out with his goddamn death trap of a 1960’s Chevy flatbed to move stuff out to his house. He says ‘we’ve got 400 square feet of storage units’ and he just said, ‘yeah, sure’ ‘if it takes a year or two to get your shit out, that’s fine. If it takes two months, that’s great too. But like let’s, let’s figure out how to make this work.’ You know, Nathan from Tiny Smart House, we stocked Laphroaig at the bar just for him. He used to come in all the time and have his business meetings, things like that. He was a great customer and a local and a friend, but the second he found out what was going on. He shows up with a gooseneck flatbed and starts hauling all of our tanks out to his warehouse. And you know, it wasn’t ‘Okay, how much can you pay to keep your shit here?’ It was, ‘you need a place to put your equipment while you figure things out, and I’ve got a warehouse, so let’s do this.’ I mean, we, we pulled a 5:00 AM to midnight shift with Nathan. Last Monday, 100% volunteer. You know, wouldn’t take money for gas. Wouldn’t take money for using the trailer. Nothing.
And I mean, I have my old employees, I have everyone showing up, everyone’s helping. So as far as what, like the community in general can do, that’s not already being done, the biggest number one, two, three, four, five through 10 thing that you can do is just, please, please support your local brewery, your local independent brewery. Budweiser doesn’t need more money. And if, if we don’t want to live in a world of fucking Arby’s and Coors Light and nothing else, you have to go down and support the guy on your block and know who owns the beer that’s being brewed, know where your money’s going. Voting with your dollar doesn’t mean shit if you don’t know who you’re voting for, and I’m just tired of preaching this fucking message over and over again, because it seems like people care and then they forget about it. We cannot forget about this.
There’s no room for spending money anywhere that isn’t sending those dollars right back into the community. And it’s just, it’s too easy to figure out where your money is going right now, not to do it. So if you want to help us, help everyone else and don’t spend your money irresponsibly. I mean, I know that’s a simplification, but, just go down to the bar on the block, buy beer. That’s what you can do. And don’t buy 10 Barrel, that’s what you can fuckin do.
Well, I really appreciate your time and yeah, sad to hear all this, but it’s amazing to hear about all that support coming out.
Yeah man. I mean, no matter how fucked this situation is, when this all started, I didn’t ever think I’d make beer again. I honestly was just so done with it.
It was like, no one gives a shit about my battle. No one gives a shit about the quality of my beer. They just want fucking Milkshake IPA. And our industry has turned into a fucking soda pop company. And while I kind of recognize those feelings. I know where they came from and I don’t feel bad for that initial emotional reaction.
The past couple of weeks has just given me life again. It’s put air in my lungs and I’m not quite ready to quit yet. And as hard as this is, I’m excited man. I’m actually excited to keep brewing beer. And that’s cool. And I owe that to everyone who’s come out and everyone who’s so much has sent me a text message over the last month. It been incredible.
Well, that’s good to hear because I’ve had my own similar…well, different situation, but similar issues recently, and then like you said, finding that sort of will and inspiration to power through I think is the most important part.
Well, we got to remember that when we started this shit, I mean, and speaking the direct WE, we were both just kinda young, arrogant, fucking pricks who were good at what we did and were stoked on beer. And at some point I think we probably both realized the same thing. Like you can’t just run a business on hot air and it doesn’t matter how stoked you are and how passionate you are.
There are other sides to this, and that gets discouraging after a while, but I hope you find the same thing that I did, which is just a little bit of fresh air. And remember why you started this.
Yeah, we just got to make our own path forward, right?
Yeah. Otherwise, you know, if I get a gig at Chevron, I’ll let you know, maybe it’ll need someone else to bond.
Okay. Yeah. Maybe you could fill my tires one time.
Yeah, I’ll come running, buddy.
Alright. Well, I hope I see you soon, man.
Yeah, you too. Let’s let’s try and grab a beer. Hopefully beer bars will be open in you know, a month or a year, whatever.
We will keep you updated on what’s next for Dave and Flat Tail.
Founder of The New School and most frequent contributor Ezra Johnson-Greenough has worked in the craft beer industry for almost 10 years, doing everything from illustrating beer labels to bartending at renowned beer bars and breweries like Belmont Station, Apex, Laurelwood and Upright Brewing. He has also had a hand in creating events like the Portland Fruit Beer Festival, Portland Beer Week, and the Brewing up Cocktails series. He is available for freelance consultation in marketing, events, graphic design and branding.