Tailspin Ale Fest Is Still Brewing up the Fun After 10 Years
Writer / Kevin Gibson
It was an unlikely undertaking when vendors at the first Tailspin Ale Fest began pouring beers on February 22, 2014. For a city like Louisville, which boasted only five breweries within its borders only a handful of years earlier, how would a large festival held in, of all places, an airport hangar, possibly fly?
Going into year 10, Tailspin is flying higher than ever before – and it didn’t always look like that would be the case. While year one was blessed with unseasonably warm and sunny weather with bright skies, mildly undermining the festival’s Winter Warmer theme, it hasn’t all been friendly skies.
“We’ve been through rain, sleet, snow and now wind,” says Tisha Gainey, co-founder.
Yep, year two was besieged by an ice storm. The 2020 Tailspin Ale Fest went off without a hitch, but under the threat of an impending pandemic. Last year’s return to the festivities at Bowman Field was hit by an unexpected windstorm that badly damaged two of the main tents – tents designed to withstand winds of 85 miles per hour, no less. The team, the vendors and even some of the attendees pulled together at the last minute to somehow make the festival happen.
Through a decade of growing pains and challenges, the Tailspin team has made sure the beer always gets through the storm and into the hands – and mouths – of attendees. In 2023, expect that to continue, whatever obstacles might ultimately present themselves.
Gainey has been a beer enthusiast essentially her whole life. Her husband Ryan proposed in a brewery. Their brewery-centric wedding featured 18 kegs of beer. She worked as a craft distributor and beverage director for restaurants, organizing public and private events dating to 2007, so she was a natural to co-found Tailspin Ale Fest with partner Trevor Cravens, with whom she became acquainted by running into him at the newly formed Louisville Beer Store. The two hit it off while talking beer, and began talking about doing a Winter Warmer festival, as well as the need for a big concept for Louisville.
Is this an obsession with beer? “I like to throw a party,” Gainey said when asked about this, just before the inaugural Tailspin festival in 2014. “I like for people to have a good time, and see that aha moment when they try a new beer and like it.”
Well, the soon-to-be 10-year run has certainly been a good time, and it has grown by leaps and bounds.
When the festival was first planned, Louisville had only 12 breweries. Today there are more than 20 – approaching 30 when including the multiple taprooms and breweries set to open in the coming weeks. At the first fest there were about 40 total breweries from around the U.S., and only 12 breweries in attendance that represented Kentucky. In 2023, expect as many as 70 to 80 breweries, including national breweries, 20 to 30 from Kentucky, and 10 to 15 from Louisville alone.
Gainey and Cravens have paid special attention to highlighting smaller, local breweries. In fact, it’s part of the Tailspin mission. Just days before the doors opened for the first time, Gainey knew they had potentially created something special.
She has a distinctive memory of being at the hangar and learning from Cravens that the festival was sold out.
“The planes were out there and it was a beautiful day,” she says. Cravens sent her a buyers report and she noted that there were tickets sold in New York, Georgia, up and down the Eastern Seaboard, and even Alaska and Washington state.
She saw someone trying to purchase tickets on Craigslist, saying his wife had tasked him with getting tickets before they sold out. He didn’t. “I’m in the doghouse,” his pleading ad read – and this was in the festival’s first year.
All years weren’t quite so serendipitous, thanks to the aforementioned weather and other issues. At the same time, it has always worked, and always sold out. The festival is unique. As Gainey said in 2014, “How many beer festivals do you know that are held in an historic airplane hangar?”
There are vintage planes, 1940s-style pinup girls for photo ops and an overall aviation theme. Between that, the music, the specialty bars and, of course, the beer, it has been a magical combination that has continued to bring in more and more people from more and more regions.
Heck, even though the festival was packed in 2020, just days before the world shut down, Gainey and Cravens received no reports that anyone had gotten sick afterwards. The festival could have been canceled, and a few people asked for refunds, but Tailspin went on, was a success, and apparently remained safe for attendees. Other local festivities were not so lucky.
In year two, the festival expanded, adding more specialty beers rather than serving standard offerings available most of the year. A barrel-aged beer feature debuted, and the presence of bourbon has only increased, evidenced by a special partnership this year with Green River Distilling Co.
As the years went by, additional features were added to the fest and it grew, not only in number of attendees, but also in attractions, including Drake’s Silent Disco, the Get On the Bus, Gus shuttle service to and from the festival from multiple points around the area, a pavilion solely dedicated to Kentucky beers, the Bourbon Barrel Beer Bar, Cox’s Cigar Lounge, the Cider & Sour Bar, the ESPN Lager Lounge and plenty more.
Sponsorships grew, including Evergreen Liquors and Cox’s Spirit Shoppe, as did the dedication to raising funds for Dare to Care, and now the HOP Foundation. The festival’s reputation grew along with it, often being named as one of the top 10 U.S. beer fests in USA Today’s Readers’ Choice Awards. Now, with storms, ice and pandemics overcome, the festival returns in 2023 for its 10th year, with more new features to go along with the old.
One of the hallmarks of Tailspin Ale Fest as it has grown, for better or worse, has been the long, single check-in line that extends down one of the roads on the airfield leading to the main gate. This year, look for multiple check-in lanes, probably eight to 10, which are expected to drastically speed up the process so attendees can get to tasting.
With the new partnership with Green River, one of Kentucky’s most historic distilleries with roots dating to 1885, comes an all-new feature. The distillery donated 10 used bourbon barrels, nine of which were distributed to breweries around Kentucky and one to Asheville, North Carolina-based Hi-Wire Brewing, which will make a koji ale using a type of mold (acting as yeast) used in sake.
“It will be unique,” Gainey says. “Nobody else is making koji ales.”
Another new feature will be a Women in Beer bar, featuring brews created by female brewers, ranging from Apocalypse Brew Works and Shippingport Brewing Company to Rhinegeist Brewery. The layout of the festival will be different than in the past. It will be moved out of the original hangar to utilize more space, and will no longer be held under massive tents. This year there will be rows of vendors of all types, set up chalet-style for a whole new look and feel. Also, be sure to check the weather and dress accordingly, as the new layout will be outdoors. In keeping with the 10-year theme, there will be 10 food trucks.
It all goes back to two friends taking inspiration from beer festivals in major cities and brew-centric places like Asheville. Giving it a Winter Warmer theme came down to the fact that most other festivals were summer and fall events, and there weren’t any leading up to March Madness and the Kentucky Derby Festival. Gainey gives much credit to how the festival team has adapted along the journey, from adding new features every year to addressing concerns to dealing with all those unexpected circumstances.
“We’re excited about 10 years,” Gainey says. “It’s a decade. We have always tried to improve it year to year. We have always tried to have something new. We are passionate about what we do. We’re not some corporate group. We’re Tisha and Trevor. We would never do everything exactly the same.”
The 2023 Tailspin Ale Fest is set for March 4 at Bowman Field in Louisville. Tickets are on sale and can be purchased by visiting tailspinalefest.com. The festival has sold out every year!