As Gabriela (Gabby) Ayala ’06 sips an India Pale Ale at Zipline Brewing Co. in Lincoln, Nebraska, other customers wander into the taproom: a bearded dude in a gray hoodie, a sharp-dressed businessman talking on his cell phone and a young couple who scan the menu board and order pints of Oatmeal Porter and Midnight Stout. A group gathers at a long wooden table, and their conversation and laughter fill the room.
“Modern day breweries hark back to the German beer hall as a space for people to come together and experience a sense of community and belonging,” said Ayala, executive director of the Nebraska Craft Brewers Guild and 2006 Hastings College theatre graduate. “Beer isn’t supposed to be taken too seriously or be too fancy. It’s supposed to be for everybody.”
Ayala, the guild’s first full-time employee, was hired in 2017 to promote and advocate for Nebraska’s burgeoning craft beer industry, which has grown from 18 to 50 breweries since 2011, an increase of nearly 180 percent. With many beer drinkers focused less on alcohol content and more on flavor, variety and supporting local businesses, in-state sales of Nebraska-brewed beer grew from less than 500,000 gallons to nearly 1.5 million gallons over eight years.
“We want to make sure people are aware that we have a growing craft brewing industry in the state,” Ayala said. “We’re never going to compete with Colorado or California when it comes to the number of breweries, but we have some amazing breweries in unique places in Nebraska.”
At Steeple Brewing Co. in downtown Hastings, co-founders Anthony May ’06, Thomas Kluver ’07 and Rev. Damen Heitmann, former Hastings College chaplain, brew beers inspired by the colorful characters Heitmann met during his time as a small-town pastor. (Brews include “Bats in the Belfry,” “Wayne Fell Asleep (Again),” and “International Preacher.”)
Though the personalities of Nebraska craft breweries vary widely, from Bootleg Brewers in Taylor to Bottle Rocket Brewing in Seward, they find common ground in the guild.
“For us, the guild has been an incredible resource,” said May, who also co-owns Idea Bank Marketing in Hastings. “It connects us with other brewers across the state, and their advice and guidance were crucial in establishing Steeple. Gabby has been great at bringing us together, representing us as a unified group and advocating for Nebraska beer across the state and country.”
From artisan wares to ciders and ales
Before taking the leadership role at the Nebraska Craft Brewers Guild, Ayala was for ten years executive director of Ten Thousand Villages, a non-profit store in Lincoln’s Historic Haymarket district that markets handcrafted products made by artisans in developing countries. Developing fair trade relationships with artisans and managing a wide-ranging inventory of baskets, jewelry, clothing and home decor, she honed her nonprofit management skills while learning to promote a diverse product line.
That expertise made for a smooth transition to the Brewers Guild, a nonprofit trade association that supports craft brewers through advertising and publicity, sponsoring educational events and serving as a collective voice legislatively. More than 95 percent of Nebraska breweries belong to the guild.
“We have other membership tiers like industry members, composed of folks who either sell or provide services to breweries, like hop farmers and insurance agencies. We also have retail supporters like bars and restaurants committed to serving Nebraska craft beer,” Ayala said.
Another tier is for “enthusiast” members (or “beer nerds,” as Ayala calls them) who love craft beer and are committed to keeping the taps flowing in Nebraska.
Ayala, whose position is supported by grants from the Nebraska Craft Brewery Board, works closely with Nebraska Extension at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln on events like the annual Nebraska Grower and Brewer Conference and Tradeshow, an educational event for regional hop growers and craft brewers.
“I really enjoy collaborating with other folks on events and conferences,” Ayala said. “I get a lot of joy from being with other people and making things happen.”
Transferring stage skills to the real world
Ayala traces her craft beer “origin story,” as she calls it, to her college days when she and her friends discovered the flavorful concoctions at Thunderhead Brewing in nearby Kearney, Nebraska. “When I turned 21, I wasn’t eager to drink beer, but then I discovered all the different flavors of craft beer.”
The theatre major stayed busy on campus acting in or directing plays ranging from “12th Night” to “The Mad Adventures of Mister Toad.” As a sophomore, she won the Dr. Hal Shiffer Award for excellence in theatre. She stays connected with the stage as a board member of Angels Theatre Company in Lincoln.
“I use my theatre degree every single day,” Ayala said. “Being a theatre major teaches you how to meet deadlines, manage projects and be part of a team. I learned all of that from my education at Hastings College.”
Ayala comes from a long line of family members who graduated from or attended Hastings College including her parents Tammy (Bower) and Diego Ayala, 1981 graduates; her brother Luis Ayala ‘08; and nine other relatives.
From her college days to her career at the helm of a busy nonprofit, Ayala finds great satisfaction in getting things done and making a difference.
“A lot of people think I drink beer all day for my job.” she said, laughing. “While there’s delicious beer involved in many parts of the job, it’s a lot more challenging than that.”