Gabby Ayala calls herself a "near Nebraskan."

She was born in Wisconsin, but her mom is a Nebraska native and the family moved here when she was 3 months old.

In her 35 years, she's been all over the state, growing up in the Sandhills, going to high school in Neligh, college in Hastings and then settling down in Lincoln.

It was while she was in college that she got her first exposure to craft beer.

Ayala said she and some friends used to go to Thunderhead Brewing Co. in Kearney, and that's where she acquired a passion for it.

"I've been a craft beer fan for a long time," she said.

So when she saw an advertisement last summer for the newly created position as executive director of the Nebraska Craft Brewers Guild, she jumped at the opportunity to apply.

The job perfectly meshed her passion for craft beer and her experience in the nonprofit world, she said.

For 10 years, Ayala worked at Ten Thousand Villages, managing the local store for the organization that sells fair trade products.

She was hired in September at the Craft Brewers Guild and has hit the ground running.

In addition to her being the first-ever full-time paid executive director for the Guild, Ayala stands out in another respect.

"It's definitely an industry, especially on the brewing side, with very few women," Ayala said.

But it doesn't have to be, she said.

"Women definitely drink craft beer," Ayala said.

In fact, she said, most of her female friends are craft beer drinkers.

In a book club she belongs to, "We all drink craft beer together," she said. "We don't drink wine or cocktails."

According to the Brewers Association, women made up about a quarter of craft beer drinkers in 2016.

Representation in the craft beer industry is similar, with women making up about 29 percent of all brewery workers, according to a 2014 study from Auburn University.

However, only about 2-4 percent of brewery owners and founders are women, according to a Stanford University study.

There are few women in top positions at Nebraska-based breweries, but that hasn't stopped them from playing an outsized role at the Craft Brewers Guild. In addition to Ayala, the guild's president, Kim Kavulak, and lobbyist, Vanessa Silke, are women.

She said that though they have not been able to confirm it, they believe they are the only craft brewers group in the U.S. with an all-female leadership team.

"It should be noted that we are all very proud to be one of the only Guilds in the United States to be led by both a female president and a female executive director," Tom Wilmoth, one of the founders of Zipline Brewing in Lincoln, said in an email. "In a traditionally male-dominated industry, it is important for us to continue to promote diversity."

Wilmoth, who was involved in the hiring of Ayala, said she has done a great job as the group's executive director.

"Gabby is a great representative for all the brewers in Nebraska," he said.

In her short tenure as head of the organization, Ayala has substantially increased the number of associate members, which includes related businesses in the industry, Wilmoth said. She also will be launching a new “Enthusiast Member” group, which will allow individual fans of Nebraska’s growing beer scene to become members of the Guild and obtain special benefits.

She's also working with the Nebraska Tourism Commission to promote the craft beer industry both within and outside of Nebraska.

Her hope is to develop beer tourism not just in Omaha and Lincoln, but also in greater Nebraska as well.

"We have awesome beer here, high-quality beer, and we want to get on the map," she said.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-2647 or molberding@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LincolnBizBuzz.


Business editor/reporter

Matt Olberding is a Lincoln native and University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate who has been covering business for the Journal Star since 2005.

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