Review: Tailspin Ale Fest Had Plenty Of Craft Beer Options, But Some Big Design Flaws

The people behind organizing Tailspin are either very brave or completely crazy. Most likely a little of both, I’m guessing. But to put your money behind a beer festival in early March in the Ohio Valley, that takes balls. Mother Nature is not a big fan of this area of the country this time of year (and by that I mean September – May). You never know what you’re going to get weather-wise. It might be 90 degrees of dead heat, or it might be -20 with two feet of snow. And given the weather the day before, with record rainfall and wind gusts up to 79 miles per hour leaving massive damage and many without power (LG&E is already calling it the third-most significant weather event it’s seen in the last 20 years), it was questionable if there would even be a Tailspin this year. But Mother Nature, even after ripping us a new one, gave her blessings in spades Saturday with absolutely perfect weather in the upper 50’s/low 60’s and sunny with a nice breeze. And fortunately (or unfortunately), Tailspin still had electricity. Fortunate in that the live music could still happen, unfortunate in that karaoke could also still happen. (Karaoke is only fun for the person singing at that moment; it’s not fun for those of us forced to listen to multiple drunk people screech out 80’s hair-metal tunes while we’re waiting in line to use the bathroom.) So kudos to everyone involved in setting this up after the storm on Friday, as you’d never even know the storm had happened, judging from the professionalism of the setup. And the whole thing seemingly went off without a hitch.

Having not been to Tailspin the past few years for various reasons (many of which revolve around being a stingy cheap-ass), I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. What I found was that Tailspin has grown up nicely. The organizers have learned from and solved the problems of the past. The line to get in stretched all the way back to somewhere in Idaho, yet we were inside within 15 minutes, thanks to extremely efficient entry management. (Try to say that five times fast.) Plus, a staggering assortment of breweries and food trucks meant all lines were kept to a minimum, except for one, and we’ll get to that later. (If you were there, you already know where I’m going with that.)

As a longtime craft beer nerd who has been to Great Taste of the Midwest in Madison, Wisconsin, several times (don’t call yourself a beer nerd unless you’ve made this sacred journey at least once in your life), I will forever unfairly judge all beer festivals to their standard. The overwhelming number of breweries and jaw-dropping number of beers, the scenic location, the limited amount of tickets and smaller crowd size — it is truly a craft beer mecca to which no other can compare (with the exception of the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, and here locally the sorely missed Keg Liquors Fest of Ale in New Albany – Todd Antz, come back!) Tailspin is absolutely getting there, though. More than 80 different breweries (both local and national) slinging more than 250 different beers and ciders under six very long tents, a bourbon barrel beer bar, a cider and sour bar, Cox’s Cigar Lounge, Drake’s Silent Disco tent, live music by Tony and the Tan Lines, numerous food trucks, a tent housing a certain amazing local arts and entertainment newspaper, and a few small one-person airplanes that, to me, looked like they would rip apart the moment they hit wind resistance, were all on hand.

The first thing I have to mention is the commemorative tasting cup that was given to everyone as they entered the festival. This was a nice little surprise and a very cool souvenir. Another nice little surprise, at least for me, anyway, was that there are now unlimited samples! No more card punches or card stamps, no beer tickets to keep track of. When the hell did this happen in Kentucky? And how long have I been missing out? This was one of the major reasons I stayed away from local beer festivals (although I usually ask for half-pours and rarely drink more than 25 samples anyway, except at the last Keg Liquors Fest of Ale in 2019, where I drank like I was in my early 20’s. Ask my wife about the aftermath of that one.)

But let’s get to the star of the show: the beer. Tailspin certainly offered up a great opportunity for craft beer geeks such as myself to get multiple ticks on Untappd. And since the festival had more than 250 beers, if you didn’t find some amazing brews there, you were an impossible MF’er to please. I was glad to see Louisville and Southern Indiana well-represented with almost every local brewery present. (Where the hell were you, 3rd Turn?) And while there were a great number of beers listed on Tailspin’s website that I’d hoped to try but never got around to, I did have more than a few memorable ones. Mile Wide came through with a strong contender for my favorite sample of the day with their Frivolous Ideation Pastry Stout, which is brewed with coffee and vanilla and leaves no doubt that you are drinking a 10% ABV beer. Equally as impressive was Atrium Brewing’s Peach Ringer Boy candy sour, brewed with peaches and peach gummy rings, which was as phenomenal as every other sour they’ve ever done. Gallant Fox’s Shot Through The Heart strawberry chocolate milk stout was top-notch, even though it makes your brain start singing that Bon Jovi song, regardless if you want it to or not. Also top-notch was Butchertown Brewing’s Imperial Gluten-Free Raspberry Puff, which blends raspberry and marshmallow for a deliciously sweet sour beer that doesn’t taste anything like the 9% ABV that it is. Against The Grain’s 70K, aged in Green River bourbon barrels, was a big, sweet, roasty, bourbon-filled treat that hit like a tank. The Apocalypse Brew Works and LAGERS collab the English Mild, run through a Randall and infused with coffee from Pregame and vanilla beans, was excellent on numerous levels. And Holsopple Brewing’s Coffee Stout proved once again why it is a contender for the best local coffee beer, in case you ever doubted it.

But local beer is just that: local. We can have these breweries’ beers anytime, thankfully! Let me give a little love to some out-of-towners. Kicking this list off is Flywheel Brewing out of E-Town (almost local) and their equally-as-solid contender for my favorite sample of the day, Peachy Keen, a sour that combines a perfect mix of raspberry, peach, and vanilla. Dogfish Head’s Citrus Squall, which is part golden ale and part tequila-inspired cocktail. New York’s Equilibrium Brewery and their Middletown Punch, a sour IPA that combines pineapple, guava, mango, passionfruit, and cherry to create a pink-colored tropical-punch-tasting fruit beer that is more tart than sour. Nashville’s Bearded Iris and their Pep Talk Lager, a sessionable (only 4.2% ABV) pilsner with a big citrusy hop kick. 3 Floyds (Munster, Indiana) and their Zombie Ice, which is basically their Zombie Dust pale ale recipe doubled. And Cincinnati’s Urban Artifact and their orange-creamsicle-in-a-can Pinwheel.

And yes, I could have totally gone into detail about the aroma, mouthfeel, tasting notes, and even the insufferable hop-talk about all these beers, but I’ll spare you the geek-speak and leave that for Untappd.

One thing I really enjoyed about Tailspin this year is that they are no longer using the airplane hangar to house the festival. While that might have protected from the elements, it made for a miserable experience with the entire crowd shoved together shoulder-to-shoulder. Being fully outdoors allowed for much easier maneuverability through the crowd. Plus, there were plenty of open pockets of space to go and get out of the sold-out crowd of several thousand, and the abundance of breweries meant beer lines were generally non-existent unless it was a special tapping. No more waiting several minutes to get a beer, only to then turn around and stand in another line for several minutes to get a beer.

And the selection of food trucks on hand was amazing! I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more diverse selection of food choices at any beer festival I’ve ever been to, although it would have been nice if a list had been posted of all of them on the Tailspin website. The only one I know for sure was there was Annie Up Pizza because I had an excellent pizza cone from them. Yeah, a pizza cone. Trust me on this, it’s awesome!

All that being said: Tailspin, my friend, we need to talk. We need to have an open, honest, heart-to-heart talk. Please understand this comes from a place of love as I ask: what the hell is up with your bathroom situation? You broke a cardinal rule; there can never be enough bathrooms at a beer festival. However, there can be too few. And Tailspin, my dear friend, you shone a huge, hoppy, beer-soaked spotlight on that fact. There were maybe 30 port-a-potties on hand. For a crowd of over 5,000 people (I’m guessing). At a beer festival. Where all 5,000+ people are drinking beer. All at the same time. You know how when you drink beer, it makes you have to pee? Like, a lot. Like, somehow 12 oz. of beer magically turns into five gallons of piss inside your bladder? Yeah, waiting 20-30 minutes in a line to do so kinda sucks. Like, a whole lot. And there’s nothing fun or funny about several hundred adults, each with their legs tightly crossed, knees buckled, hands on their crotch, biting their bottom lip as they are all unwillingly involved in a mass pee-pee dance together. (OK, maybe it’s a little funny.) Every single port-a-potty on Port-A-Potty Row (I’m officially naming it that) had a line at least 20 people deep for most of the festival. And taking place on a big, open airfield does not provide one with the opportunity to sneak off behind some trees and let nature take its course. While the addition of the piss trailer (can we call it a piss trailer? Let’s call it a piss trailer), lined with about 20 or so urinals  (there was no way I was going to stand there and get an exact count), was a great idea and the line moved relatively fast for that, it’s not accessible to women unless they wanted to sit somewhere where no human ass should ever touch while a bunch of strangers stare at them incredulously. No, my friend, no. At least three times as many port-a-potties were needed. I think most of us would be comfortable paying a few bucks more per ticket for extra port-a-potties if it meant not having to wear a Depends adult diaper during the festival. If you want to find the correct port-a-potty-to-crowd-size ratio, please visit Bourbon & Beyond and/or Louder Than Life, as they have a whole village of pissers on hand.

And if I may continue with my Andy Rooney-like old-man rant, why was there no map of the festival? That would have been so wonderful. You could have posted it on the official Tailspin app that, even after 10 years, still doesn’t exist. Then I wouldn’t have been wandering around all festival looking for the sour tent, only to finally find it on my way out. And I wouldn’t have been incorrectly guessing numerous times as to which tent Flywheel was in so I could get another sample of Peachy Keen. Look, some of us are old and get confused easily. And whether it’s printed, on the website, or in the non-existent app, a map would be super helpful.

Bottom line, though: Tailspin is undoubtedly Louisville’s premier craft beer festival and certainly proves it belongs among the nation’s top-ranked beer festivals. And although I found a couple things wrong, there are hundreds of things right about it. Needless to say, Tailspin is absolutely a can’t-miss experience. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a shitload of check-ins to do on Untappd!