Presenting the female brewers of Southern Arizona slaying in the name of beer

June 27, 2019
By Angela Orlando
By Angela Orlando

Three female brewers in Southern Arizona share their love of beer and how this came to be.

In ye olden days, about 4,000 years ago in Mesopotamia, beer brewing evolved as a fortunate offshoot of bread baking. Both these comforting barley-based products were crafted by the deft hands of ladies, because women toiled at the hearth, while the men were otherwise occupied hunting, farming, or making civic decisions. Women also gathered the wild ingredients necessary to make beer and organized the ceremonies that beer facilitated.

That is an overly generalized summary of the history of the gendered division of food procurement, but archaeological and archival records show that women were indeed the original beer brewers, the keepers of the Keystone, if you will.

And don’t forget, brewing isn’t a mindless domestic task at all: it requires a fluent understanding of complex chemistry and math, lest we end up with an explosion or a toxic concoction that renders the entire population sick… or worse.

Small batch products are in

Leap forward in time and travel halfway around the world from Iraq to the contemporary United States, where craft beer brewing is hugely en trend.

Nostalgia for simpler times has led consumers to crave small batch products made of purer, often locally sourced ingredients. Brewers have answered the call with rawer processes, folklore-like brands, and identifiable taste aesthetics.

At some point, however, beer-making was twisted away from the feminine realm and recontextualized.

For a while there, an unspoken Americana behavioral code dictated that brewing had to take place not in a warm kitchen setting but in an industrialized masculine garage-type space: it was a practice all but exclusive to men.

Women step up as brewmasters

But behind today’s ferments, women are reclaiming their brewing heritage, barreling their way back into the trade. Granted, female-identified brewers (once called “brewsters,” though the term has fallen out of favor in exchange for the less semantically segregationist “brewmasters”) are still undeniably outnumbered. But they hold a presence, a powerful and growing one. They’re making the delicious Sonoran craft beers and sours at some of our preeminent breweries, with and without the supervision of men.

Establishing a female community

Membership in groups supporting female-identified folks in the profession is growing. One example is the active Arizona branch of the online CraftBeerGirls BEER&BODY LLC Facebook group.

According to Ayla Kapahi, head brewer at Borderlands Brewing Company, “the group is for women who are passionate about craft beer, homebrewing, and/or brewing professionally. Women in the group are proud to post experiences about what they’re drinking or ask beer-related questions, without fear of backlash.”

Kapahi also discussed the Pink Boots Society (PBS), an international nonprofit that educates and empowers women employed in beer brewing. She’s been a PBS member for four years.

“PBS provides networking and educational opportunities through scholarships, online resources like national job listings, and trainings,” she said. Currently, the only Arizona chapter is in Phoenix, but Kapahi and others are scooting another PBS branch to Tucson soon.

“Members of these groups are smart, encouraging, and enthusiastic,” she noted.

Brewing to give back

Women are also collaboratively brewing beers to benefit charities.

For example, Girls Pint Out is a nonprofit organization with a mission to build a community of women who love craft beer and who are an active, contributing part of the greater craft beer community.

Victoria Parridgen and Sarah Richie started the Tucson chapter more than five years ago.

“There was a collaboration brew with the women of Tucson Craft Beer. It was called Brewtiful You Pale Ale. A portion of the proceeds from that beer went to Pink Boots, to provide scholarships for members. It was also to celebrate International Women’s Day,” Parridgen said.

“Basically, we try to hold one or two events per month to encourage women to learn about craft beer,” she added.

Female brewers in Southern Arizona

Three women relayed their love of beer (and adventure); the nuanced ways they originate their brews; and their perspectives on the future of females in the profession.

Here are the brewmasters, the beer slayers… the female brewers in Southern Arizona.

Ayla Kapahi of Borderlands Brewing Company

Ayla Kapahi, head brewer at Borderlands Brewing Company, grew up in the outskirts of Sacramento, California and lived outside of the Bay Area before moving to Tucson six years ago.

She worked for Public Brewhouse for three years and has now been with Borderlands for a year.

Ayla Kapahi, Grace Hargis, and Mike Gura at Public Brewhouse (Credit: Jackie Tran)
Ayla Kapahi, Grace Hargis, and Mike Gura at Public Brewhouse (Credit: Jackie Tran)
The family blessing

Kapahi had no idea she’d end up a brewer, much less a brewmaster. Her family expected a totally different life for her.

“While my immediate family is supportive, I initially faced resistance from my family in India. They couldn’t understand why I dropped out of a Ph.D. program to pursue what they consider ‘blue collar’ work. They used to call me once a month and ask two questions: ‘When are you getting married?’ and ‘When are you going back to school?’”

But they came around.

“Family from India visited me last fall and I gave them a tour of Borderlands, explaining what I do,” she said.

“They were completely silent, and after taking a look at our lab and the machinery I operate, they said, ‘Ohhh, you’re a scientist! An engineer! An artist!’ and gave me their blessing.”

Cassidy Johnson and Ayla at Borderlands Brewing Co. (Credit: Jackie Tran)
Cassidy Johnson and Ayla at Borderlands Brewing Co. (Credit: Jackie Tran)
Authentic flavors permeate her cooking

Her passion for brewing derives from a love of flavor and an attempt to recreate intense flavors wherever she travels.

Coming from California, Kapahi craved intensity upon moving to Tucson. She sought the depth of Punjabi, Thai, and Vietnamese cuisines — her favorites.

“I found myself missing these authentic flavors from the Bay Area, so I started cooking these cuisines myself,” she said.

“I’ve always enjoyed cooking and when I eat out at restaurants I’m inspired to whip something up at home. I like to say that the best Indian food in Tucson is in my kitchen.”

Interestingly, that’s also how she got into making beer.

Dabbling palate

“Expanding my craft beer palate in my early twenties prompted me to dabble in homebrewing, but I didn’t really learn how to brew commercially until I started a brewing apprenticeship at Public Brewhouse.”

It was a man who took Kapahi under his brewmaster tutelage, guiding her until she could fly off on her own.

“My brewing mentor, Mike Gura, co-owner of Public Brewhouse, taught me a lot, never doubted my ability, and shaped me into the brewer I am today,” she said. “I enjoy having a physically demanding job and being able to craft something tangible I can share with others.”

Evolving Tastes

Regarding her personal preferences, Kapahi likes “sours and anything she can throw into a barrel. And IPAs,” she added.

“My favorite beer styles to drink are West Coast IPAs, Czech pilsners, and barrel-aged sours like lambics and Flanders – the funkier the better. Bring on the wild yeasts, brettanomyces, and complexity.” (Note: brettanomyces are a kind of yeast that generate an earthy flavor. They’re commonly referred to as “Bretts,” if they’re referred to at all.)

There’s a good chance that Kapahi will be serving up some of her favorites sometime in the future, though barreling takes a long time.

“Stay tuned for barrel projects in the works at Borderlands. Maybe some will be ready next year,” she said.

Other revolutions: mezcal, travel, and biking

Kapahi is not just a beer drinker; although she mostly prefers it, she’s getting into mezcal, and she enjoys a Cabernet now and again.

She also loves to travel in the name of beer and support other brewers.

“I try to make an effort to visit local breweries. It’s important to me to support independent craft breweries and celebrate what they’re brewing. I typically plan vacations around breweries I’d like to visit — Austin, Texas for Jester King and the Czech Republic, just to name a few,” she said.

But her passion is biking.

“I enjoy both road and mountain biking, but mostly mountain, [and] try to spend my weekends on a bike. I like to race non-competitively a few times a year,” she said.

The sisterhood of female brewers

And of course, she supports the sisterhood of female brewers in Southern Arizona, not only by being active in several organizations like PBS but by working at Borderlands.

“One thing that makes the Borderlands production side unique is that it is entirely female-run. Cassidy Johnson is our production operations manager, and Savanna Saldate is our cellar person. These women are incredibly talented and I love working with them,” she said.

Borderlands Brewing Company is located at 119 E. Toole Ave. Tucson, AZ 85701. For more information, visit

Sammie Jesser of Copper Brothel Brewery

Sammie Jesser is the brewmaster at Copper Brothel Brewery in Sonoita, Arizona — where she moved from Colorado four years ago. Jesser began brewing about a year before she moved to Arizona. She’s self-taught and said that she’s still learning, motivated by her love of experimentation.

Head brewer Samantha Jesser at Copper Brothel Brewery (Credit: Jackie Tran)
Head brewer Samantha Jesser at Copper Brothel Brewery (Credit: Jackie Tran)
Flavor Explorations

“When I ventured into home brewing, it was purely for the fun of making up my own recipes and I still find it really fun to mess around with different beer styles and flavors,” Jesser said. “I also love to cook and come up with my own recipes.”

Even though Jesser is relatively new to her occupation, she prefers concocting new tastes over perfecting classics.

“I love coming up with our rotating seasonal beers because it gives me something new to work on,” she said.

And she’s not prone to consumer fads.

“In the age of the hop head, I find myself drawn to the different subtleties that different malts bring to the game. I really try to make my beers drinkable for the average consumer and not just the craft beer drinker looking for the next new craze,” she noted.

“That being said, I still like to play with new takes on traditional styles, like my red Kolsch and lime hefeweizen.”

Jesser’s foodie stance

With regard to food, Jesser will go outside the box, but not for long.

“I always love trying new things, but Mexican food will forever be my favorite,” she said.

Will travel for beer

And the same is true of travel: Jesser and her family travel in the name of beer.

“We always joke that we can’t stay anywhere that isn’t near a brewery or we don’t even know what we would do. It’s always been a family pastime to go brewery hopping and seeing what exciting things other places are coming up with,” she said.

Family brewery with a largely from-scratch kitchen

The Copper Brothel is bigger than Jesser herself and it’s bigger than brewing. Plus, they’re winging it, quite successfully.

“Our whole business is family-owned and operated and we are all getting on-the-job training as we go,” she said.

“We have a full bar and restaurant along with our brewery here. Our kitchen is predominantly from scratch and offers traditional pub food with some Mexican dishes thrown in. We also have a 14-foot outdoor smoker that we do all kinds of smoked meat specials throughout the week.”

Those meat specials pair perfectly with Jesser’s beers, each of which is named after a fictional female character who might have worked as a lady of the night at the “brothel.”

“All the recipes are a collaborative effort between us all and our restaurant manager (and practically adopted brother) TJ Martinez,” Jesser said. “The whole concept of our brewpub was created among us all and TJ has been a major part of it [since] before we ever opened.”

Promoting the region’s rich history

Sonoita is known for wine production and Copper Brothel is the first brewery in the region.

“Sonoita is an absolutely beautiful area full of vineyards, wineries, and distilleries as well as a hotbed of tons of outdoor activities that drive a lot of tourism to the area. All we want to do is offer our guests a place to take in all the beauty we have to offer in the area while enjoying some delicious food and beer,” Jesser explained.

In some respects, it’s making history while simultaneously paying homage to the integrity of the area’s rich heritage.

“Our intentions were always to pay respect to the history of the area. We are both female-owned and brewed so I like to see us taking the historical relevance of brothels being some of the first female-owned business and economic generators in rural areas and using it in a parallel manner but adding the positivity of pushing our way into a more male-dominated industry,” she said.

Sisterhood of Brewmasters

“I’ve always been welcomed into the local brewing community and I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything,” Jesser noted.

“With that being said, a little sisterhood never goes amiss and I’m always willing to help my fellow ladies in the industry any way I can.”

Copper Brothel Brewery is located at 3112 AZ-83 Sonoita, AZ 85637. For more information, visit

Ashley Azzone of Dragoon Brewing Company

Ashley Azzone, a brewer at Dragoon Brewing Company, comes from a blue-collar family in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her father is a carpenter, and her mother worked in the service industry for the majority of her professional career. No one in the family had brewed beer professionally before Azzone started at Dragoon six years ago, about a month after the brewery’s first anniversary.

“I always tell people I got fired from my last job at the right time,” she said.

Azzone’s sudsy history

Upon landing the job at Dragoon, Azzone didn’t start making beer right away. She had to work her way up to it. Today, she has worked every position possible with Dragoon except for sales.

“I’ve cleaned lines, packaged beer, tended bar, was the cellar person, and eventually landed at brewing, which was always my end goal,” she said. It took four-and-a-half years.

“[When I started] I knew nothing of beer — aside from what I liked, errr, what I thought I liked — and starting as a line cleaner, I worked backwards through the life of beer, which made me want to learn more and more,” she said. “I love the idea of making something to share with people. Beer is so awesome because it brings people together, and because [it’s] science!”

Men have definitely helped Azzone get to where she is today. Eric Greene, co-founder and head brewer at Dragoon; Wes McCanse, production manager and her direct supervisor; and brewer Shawn Cochran have taught Azzone the majority of her brewing lessons.

But she noted that “one of the things I love most about my job is that while we’ve continued to grow, each person in every position has something to share. I am always learning from my colleagues, and I love that we have an environment that facilitates that kind of growth.”

Ashley Azzone joins "State Bird" collaborative female brewers at Crooked Tooth Brewing Co. (Credit: Jackie Tran)
Ashley Azzone joins “State Bird” collaborative female brewers at Crooked Tooth Brewing Co. (Credit: Jackie Tran)
The meaning of flavor

As far as product goes, “I think our dedication to traditional, quality, and consistent beers are what set us at Dragoon apart,” Azzone noted.

“While I very much enjoy our one-off beers, we still make those with traditional ingredients. Quality and consistency have always been our number-one priorities in everything we do, and I think that’s what truly makes us shine.”

She does hold some specific brews particularly dear.

“[One of] my two favorite beers to brew at Dragoon [is] Stronghold Session Ale — the mash-in (the initial stage of brewing, steeping grains in hot water) is so aromatic, and it reminds me of a delicious pizza,” Azzone said.

Beer flight at Dragoon Brewing Company (Credit: Jackie Tran)
Beer flight at Dragoon Brewing Company (Credit: Jackie Tran)

“The other is Öhaygrrl, our gose. I was able to help write the recipe and make it ‘mine’ after my one-year anniversary.

We’ve really dialed the recipe in over time: it’s so salty and delicious! The coriander is there, but very subtle. While I love the spice, I don’t necessarily care for it in heavy doses in beers.

It’s perfect for Tucson summers: salty enough to keep you coming back for more and low enough ABV [that] you won’t feel too sloppy,” she said.

More than a balance of spice

In addition to the proper balance of spice and alcohol content, Azzone has an affinity for specific ingredients and their effects on her brews.

“El Dorado®? is one of my favorite hops and I love crystal malt because the malting process is a bit different than other malts,” she said, reiterating: “Yay, science!”

Dig in

In addition to cerveza, Azzone digs gin and occasionally tequila. She’s also an unabashed foodie.

“Food. I like to eat food, all types, all the time, give it all to me! I also enjoy cooking, but I definitely like to eat more,” she said.

Hobbies lean to the outdoorsy (and travel)

An outdoorswoman, Azzone craves natural light and fresh air to offset “being in a warehouse 40-plus hours a week surrounded by fluorescent lights.

“Other hobbies of mine include traveling, usually by car — road trips are my favorite,” she said. “[I love] camping, hiking and fly fishing. Basically, anything outside. I do travel for beer. I can enjoy fishing a lot more when the beer is good and thankfully some of my favorite places to fish also have some pretty killer beer.”

A community of women

“Recently a group of Tucson beer women came to Dragoon to brew a beer that benefited the Pink Boots Society. A family unknowingly came to our release party of the beer, and the mom told me she was able to have a conversation with her young daughter about the significance of our all-women brew, and that beer isn’t just for the boys. Knowing we were able to do that through beer, with our friends, was so validating,” Azzone said.

“My job is amazing because of the people I get to share our product with. I have so much love and appreciation for Tucson and am so honored to be a part of this community,” she said.

“Tucson’s beer scene is always growing, and I’ve never felt more a part of something before. I’ve made some lifelong friends while learning a trade, and [it’s gratifying] being a part of something bigger than me!”

Dragoon Brewing Company is located at 1859 W. Grant Rd., Ste. 111, Tucson, AZ 85745. For more information, visit

Special thanks to Ty Young, Sarah Ritchie, and Rebecca Safford for guidance on this story. Please share your love and support for the female brewers in Southern Arizona in the comments.

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