Flat Tail Fights Adversity with Diversity

Flat Tail Brewing’s Dave Marliave

Is Dave Marliave Superman? His quest for Truth, Justice, and the American Way could tilt the odds in his favor (or bust his cover). Though relatively quiet lately, Flat Tail Brewing in Corvallis has been through a virtual American Ninja Warrior course of obstacles, from machinery woes to distributor malfunctions (strike that: reverse it) to invisible, life threatening foes. And yet Flat Tail survives, due in no small part to the flexibility of its brewing system and owner/brewer Marliave’s creativity in a diverse range of beer styles.

Marliave has guided Flat Tail’s production since most of his college graduate peers were moving back in with their parents. His GABF and World Beer Cup medals–among other local accolades–in multiple categories put him in front of the pack, and a moment with him proves his muscle-memory-level knowledge of quality ingredients and processes (e.g. the brewery’s mash tun feeds to the kettle by gravity to reduce “shearing” by a pump, which can contribute unwanted haze and reduce a beer’s malt character. Nerd out!).

Marliave had looked forward to this past summer as the the most hassle-free time in a couple years. A perfect storm of events showed the business what failure would look like, and the plucky Flat Tail team gave death (and AB-Inbev, for good measure) the finger in more ways than one.

In 2015, the owner of the building that houses the brewery contracted to have a moldy ceiling replaced in the brewery’s barrel room. The contractor failed to protect the barrels with tarps, and compromised the integrity of the beer. Marliave had to dump beer from over 100 wooden casks. Readers may remember the controversial strike at General Distribution in 2016. Among the many breweries affected, Flat Tail lost placement of its cans at both Plaid Pantry and Chevron convenience stores. Losing that much shelf space set the brewery back many thousands of dollars, and resulted in a backlog of beer. In addition, its Northern California distributor had been underperforming for unknown reasons.

Adding infection to injury, Marliave was laid up for weeks this past June as the treatment of a wound in his leg revealed a near-fatal allergy to antiseptics. This happened shortly after an epic 24-hour motorcycle ride to Los Angeles for which Marliave raised over $8,000 for the National Brain Tumor Association.

The setbacks have been harsh, but Marliave and the team have continued to figure out new projects. Some of these can literally be described as innovative (as opposed to the belabored term applied commercially to any brewery adding citrus to an IPA). The Dam Wild series of beers, developed as a response to kettle sours, utilizes a split fermentation on Flat Tail’s house strains of Brettanomyces and Lactobacillus that is blended after fermentation and amended with fruit, hops, or spices. The result is a live, age-able beer with an affordable price tag. The Hops & Lemon Verbena version won silver at GABF in 2015 and gold in 2017. (The brewery has been awarded numerous medals over the years; the Dam Wild Series is the most consistent.)

One of the latest experiments was a double IPA called “aMAIZEballs.” [pause for a hearty chuckle] We’re not sure why, but he decided to make a beer utilizing 90% flaked corn in the mash. After a 12-hour runoff (“Next time I’ll use 5 bags of rice hulls, whatever it takes for that not to happen again,” says Marliave with nostalgic exasperation.), a rigorous hopping with Mosaic and Chinook hops, and a standard ale fermentation, the 9% ABV beer was a bright yellow fog with oodles of citrus, pine, and dank fruity aroma. The corn flavor was fairly masked by the hops, but came in at the finish with a smooth raw corn flavor, as you might expect. The body was light and alcohol heat was minimal for its high gravity.

Moving further into the sordid depths of Marliave’s beer brain, a monster lurks. Last checked, the gravity of his anniversary beer for Corvallis Brewing Supply should top 15% (with a caveat, read on). The beer has undergone more technical procedures than some adult film stars. It began life simply, as a 100% Golden Promise mash. Then the wort was boiled for… wait for it… six days. The original gravity was higher than the brewery’s hydrometer could read. Fermentation in neutral bourbon, wine, and new oak barrels, has been reasonably slow, and the beer has seen five strains of yeast so far. But rather than pitching willy-nilly, Marliave has pulled several gallons of beer with which to test and see if each new yeast would actually ferment in such a morass of sugar and alcohol.

The caveat: human error happens all the time. Somebody bumps a temp controller and accidentally free-rises a vigorous fermentation; the beer is phenolic and dumped. Two different beers are blended into a brite tank; the brewery re-names the beer and pretends nothing happened, making the best of a mistake. Those are real stories. And sometimes a well-intended assistant brewer racks several barrels of pale ale into what would have been one of the strongest all-malt, non-ice-distilled beers ever made (roughly 20% ABV).

The accident was meant to be a transfer of yeast from one fermentor to another, but went too long. The accident dealt the beer a blow, but not necessarily for the worse; the loss of gravity is a major bummer for a brewer hoping for a real doozie, but the beer is intact and still huge. Layers of vermouth, coffee cake, and a galaxy of other aromas and flavors, along with a burnished cabernet body–like a Flanders red without the sourness–give every sip a narrative arc. “Nothing anybody has said about this beer has been wrong,” says Marliave of its complexity. A release date hasn’t been set, as the gravity is still dropping, the alcohol still rising. Though it’s not the story Marliave intended, it is an adventurous endeavor worthy of note, and another hurdle overcome at a craft brewery.

In the meantime, new developments are afoot. The brewery will be moving away from cans and 22 oz. bottles and into 12 oz. longnecks; Tailgater Kölsch is on shelves now. The reasoning is twofold. The 22 oz. format is at an ebb tide (in my opinion it’s always been strange to buy a bottle that’s too big for one glass and too small for two), and the mobile canner adds enough oxygen in the process to significantly shorten the shelf life of Flat Tail’s beer, which has lower dissolved oxygen than Budweiser prior to canning, according to Marliave. The brewery will soon install a bottling line that can package in any size glass bottle.

Flat Tail’s 7th Anniversary beer, Lawyers, Guns, and Money, is a Belgian golden strong ale. Straight up, it presents an array of esters and phenols without leaving crispy pilsner malt or traditional European hops in the lurch. As it warms, pleasant notes of sake add mystique.

Drinking beer at the brewpub, just across the street from the Willamette River in downtown Corvallis, can be an odd experience. You’re at an orange-fringed sports bar drinking a refined Belgian-style ale without a domestic handle in sight. The bartender knows at least half of his crowd. The owner talks to a writer about his disdain for hazy IPAs, his concern with the GABF judging process, his motorcycle heroes…  

As Flat Tail evolves with the times, it remains a successful, independent brewery. Its response to stress can be a lesson and assurance for other brewpubs and breweries in this time of transition in craft beer.

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.