Big changes at Borderlands Brewing Propel the Once-Struggling Company to One of S. Arizona's Top Beer Producers

Austin Counts
Borderlands Director of Production Ayla Kapahi and CEO Es Teran smile after learning their brewery received their beverage artisan certification from the Tucson City of Gastronomy organization.

It's easy to sense something has changed at Borderlands Brewing Company when walking through their doors these days. It's not that the brewing equipment moved to a new facility a few years back and created more space in their taproom or that they've added a barbershop to the floor plan. It's not even that they've redesigned their patio to create a more socially-distanced environment.

What has changed—and for the better, I might add—is the quality and consistency of their beer while building upon the brewery's brand.

Borderlands has always made a good product and had a loyal following for over the past decade, but in 2021 the beer and the brand are on another level. Just ask the folks at the Tucson City of Gastronomy who manages our city's UNESCO designation. The non-profit certified Borderlands as one of Tucson's beverage artisans earlier this month.

Much of the company's recent success over the past few years is due mainly to Borderlands CEO Es Teran and Director of Production Ayla Kapahi striving to create innovative brews while building their regional distribution reach.

Teran said one of the biggest changes the brewery made after former owners Mike Mallozzi and Myles Stone left the company was installing a seven-member board of directors and running the brewery like a corporation. Originally a silent investor and patron, Teran took over Borderlands CEO shortly after the original owners' departure, he said.

"Once we established the board, we created different departments and outlined their operations and duties. Each department has a department head and a manager," Teran said. "It's more structured than before and now that everything runs through a department, it's easier to manage."

Teran said his company is now looking to expand and open new locations in the near future. While the pandemic has taken its toll on the brewery, Teran said he sees it as an opportunity to learn how to adapt to new challenges. The brewery has retained the majority of its staff during the pandemic and even hired new employees to help implement the new direction.

"When we closed for five months because of the pandemic last year we had to keep busy. So, we started focusing on deliveries, our branding and social media. We worked on our patio while we were closed," Teran said. "Once we reopened, we adapted a more restaurant-type environment with table service and we'll probably keep it for a while. I think that's the key to our success."

Nearly three years ago, Kapahi received an out-of-the-blue phone call from former owner Mallozzi to see if she could temporarily fill in while the company searched for a new brewer. She had previous experience brewing at now-shuttered Public Brewhouse's small system, but had never used a commercial set-up as Borderlands had, she said.

"When I got that phone call from Mike, it was like this light bulb went off and I saw this [brewing] could be a career for me," Kapahi said. "But, I was also thinking that since Borderlands was such a large scale operation, isn't there someone else better qualified?"

Kapahi took the opportunity to turn her passion for brewing into a career. She had previously been studying for her PhD, but decided to leave school and try her hand at the beer industry, she said.

"Six years ago I started learning how to brew commercially. I love having a physically and cognitively demanding and challenging job," Kapahi said. "There has always been something that has attracted me to the craft industry. The community is very supportive and excited about what you're brewing."

Kapahi is an advocate for supporting women and minorities in the craft brewing industry and even employs an all-female brewing staff. Last January, she and other local female brewers made history by collaborating with female brewers in Mexico to create Las Hermanas, Arizona and Sonora's first all-female brewed beer. She said experiences like that make the long hours spent brewing over the past six years worth every minute.

"I believe in brewing beers for a purpose," Kapahi said. "For me, beer is more than what's in a glass. It's about making something to share with the Tucson community and celebrating our local people."