The University of California at Davis offers an impressive array of courses in brewery science. The well-respected Master Brewers program provides would-be craft brewers with a solid framework of brewing knowledge they can ideally turn into a career in the beer industry.
Ayla Kapahi attended UC Davis, and now she’s Head Brewer and Director of Operations at Borderlands Brewing Company. The twist? Kapahi didn’t take these beer science courses. When Kapahi attended the university she studied Psychology of Human Development, with a specific focus on LGBTQIA+ health and wellness.
So, how did she build a career and stellar reputation in craft beer? Not from time in a classroom or by earning a beer sciences certificate, but because of the person she is — a lifelong learner with a relentless passion for personal growth and community building. Coupled with an unwavering belief that a woman can do absolutely anything, you’ve got the recipe for craft beer greatness.
Kapahi dabbled in home-brewing beer during her undergraduate time in Davis, even taking a couple of food science courses to inform her recipes. After college, Kapahi moved to Tucson to pursue a position in the Family Studies and Human Development Department at the University of Arizona.
“I was working with a faculty member there on queer women’s health, specifically in cervical cancer research,” Kapahi explained. “I was involved in academia, but I still had a love and passion for craft beer.” One year after she moved to Tucson, Tap & Bottle opened its doors. “I used to sit at the bar a couple days a week and read or bring my papers and have a couple beers. I think that was really the place I started my true love and understanding of different types of craft beer.”
Soon thereafter, Kapahi picked up a bartending job at the now-closed nanobrewery, Public Brewhouse. This was her first job in the craft beer industry, and it became the gateway to her blossoming career.
“Truly, beertending is where I learned the most about craft beer, and has to be hands down the most valuable craft beer experience, because you get to see all sides of the business,” she said. “People would ask me questions, and I didn’t know all the answers, so I had to figure it out.”
When Public Brewhouse owners Mike Gura and Cody Van Haren needed a little extra help in the back of the brewery, Kapahi jumped at the opportunity.
“Of course, at that time I was so excited — I was scrubbing floors and washing kegs, and I was so in awe of everything around me,” said Kapahi.
The extra chores soon turned into a full-blown craft beer apprenticeship and ultimately led Kapahi to brew beer full-time for Public Brewhouse.
After cutting her teeth in the nanobrewery, Kapahi was hired by Borderlands Brewing Company in 2018. Kapahi was the very first woman to brew for Borderlands, and in 2019 she became their Head Brewer at what would be Arizona’s first all-female production facility, Voltron Brewing.
Since then, her roles and responsibilities have held a steady upward trajectory, adding Director of Operations for Borderlands Brewing Company to her resume.
While the beer at Borderlands has never been tastier, the way Kapahi describes a typical brew day is what sets her apart from a brewer with formal didactic training in brewery sciences.
“There’s a physicality in brewing that feels almost like a dance,” Kapahi explained. “The science and the numbers and the textbook knowledge are what I used to stick to a long time ago, but at some point, your senses and intuition take over.”
“It’s a rhythmic flow. I can tell what stage in the process we are in just by picking up on certain noises or cues in the brewery. We’re still on top of measurements and using the hard and fast chemistry rules that you have to know, but the creative flow, the dance, and the intuition fill in all the blanks. The most rewarding part of that is when we taste the beer and it’s turning out exactly as we want it.”
For Kapahi, brewing is a symphony of art and science, and she’s the master conductor.
In her brewing, Kapahi is particularly inspired by ingredients and traditions of the Southwest, such as the Tohono O’odham 60-day maize found in Borderlands Brewing’s Veijo Pueblo Blonde Ale. The locally grown corn adds mild sweetness and a lager-esque crispness to the ale, and Kapahi draws similarities to her favorite style of beer, the Czech lager.
She has also learned to appreciate that beer doesn’t just work in singularity, but rather is meant to complement and play off a meal, a philosophy with strong cultural ties to Mexico and the Sonoran Desert.
“It’s very on-brand for us to work with local ingredients and pay homage to this region,” she said.
For Sonora Moonshine Company, the Borderlands offshoot restaurant opening later this year, Kapahi is looking forward to brewing a couple of very unique beers that use agave and sotol. This is just one example of why she’s celebrated by her peers in the local craft beer scene.
“What I love most about Ayla is her dedication to highlighting regional ingredients,” said Ashley Azzone, Lab Manager of Dragoon Brewing Company. “Her creativity in recipe development and execution on the brew deck is top tier. It’s been a treat watching her grow and thrive as the Head Brewer for Borderlands.”
Women were the original brewers of beer, mixing herbal remedies in grain-based brews for the community to partake in and enjoy. It has only been within the last several decades that the craft beer industry has become male-dominated — particularly white male-dominated.
Kapahi recounts that for the most part, she’s had really positive experiences in the industry. Yet as the “first woman” in many of the spaces she’s operated in, Kapahi has encountered her share of gender-based discrimination and underestimation.
“When you’re a woman and you’re in beer production, there’s a certain fascination that leads to a lot more questions,” said Kapahi. “I think because it doesn’t fit with the vision of what a ‘brewer’ looks like. I just have to continue working on the passion projects that I do with women, and minorities specifically. My motto is the work will never be done until the raised eyebrows stop.”
A recent brewing experience that was particularly rewarding for Kapahi was the Las Hermanas project, a brewing collaboration that brought Latina brewers from Mexico across the border to brew a beer at Borderlands. The experience included a brew day, free technical education for the participants, and opportunities to talk about life as a woman in the craft beer industry — on both sides of the border.
“There were really good cross-cultural perspectives on a lot of topics related to brewing and the more vulnerable situations that we find ourselves in. What is the best way for us to help each other personally and professionally? Beyond craft beer, it was really just women talking about what it’s like to be a woman,” said Kapahi.
It’s extremely important to Kapahi to pay forward the support that she was given as a brewery newbie, and to help lift up a new cohort of women in craft beer.
“In those early days it was really valuable for me to have other business owners and beer experts come in and talk to me and teach me about beer,” said Kapahi. She names Rebecca Safford of Tap & Bottle and Julie Vernon of Crooked Tooth Brewing Company as two of her early mentors.
“They were so supportive of me along the way. It took me time in my career to believe in myself, and they believed in me first. I find myself, eight years later, in their position. I’m kind of a veteran in the industry.”
Even with her now-extensive breadth of knowledge and brewery experience, Kapahi said the key to her personal style of leadership is more about listening than lecturing.
“I’m not as interested in sharing my own personal story as I am in listening to other people, using the privilege that I have and where I am in my career to elevate those voices,” she said.
Besides running brewing operations at Borderlands Brewing Company, Kapahi is currently working towards her MBA at the University of Arizona’s Eller College of Management.
She has also co-founded two local beer-centric professional meet-up groups for networking, education, and promoting equity in brewing (the Pink Boots Southern Arizona Chapter and Southern Arizona Craft).
“I have a leader’s instinct. Wait a minute, is that called being a control freak? Trying to be introspective here,” Kapahi joked.
“Ayla is one of the reasons the Tucson beer community is so special,” said Brooke Nelson, co-founder of both the local Pink Boots chapter and Southern Arizona Craft, and a researcher for the Arizona Safer Bars Study. “She goes above and beyond in everything she does. She brings people together. Ayla is community.”
Savanna Saldate is the Lead Brewer for Borderlands Brewing Company and has trained under and worked alongside Kapahi for about four years.
“The Tucson craft beer scene would not be the same without Ayla,” said Saldate. “Her ability to not only adapt to but adopt every situation that comes her way is unmatched. Ayla doesn’t just participate in the beer community, she creates it.”
Kapahi believes that a close-knit craft beer community is what differentiates Tucson from other craft beer meccas, and attributes it to “authenticity, trust, and transparency” between folks in the industry.
“I think any one of us would be comfortable saying, ‘hey, I need help with this recipe’ or ‘how do I charge for this’ or whatever it is,” she elaborated. “When industry people come to visit Tucson, they say there is something different about the connection beer people have here — this electrifying thing — and it makes us truly unique. It gives me goosebumps.”
Kapahi is living proof that the people who brew our beer are as important to the quality of the final product as the ingredients that go into it. She has played a large role in bolstering Tucson’s prolific craft beer scene and has inspired a new generation of women to follow their brewing dreams.
Lucky for us, her passion and dedication to the craft are also apparent in every delicious pour of Borderlands beer.
Borderlands Brewing Company’s new location is at 2500 E. Sixth St. and the original location is at 119 E. Toole Ave. For more information, visit borderlandsbrewing.com or follow Borderlands Brewing on Instagram.
Jessie Jean Mance was born in Tucson and never met a riparian area she didn’t like. She is a lover of lightning, sunsets, mezcal, music, and other intoxicating experiences. Mance resolutely believes that fresh air is medicine, burritos are the...