A mission renewed

After a tough spell, Denmark’s People Like Us is back on its feet, brewing great beer and showing the strength that lies in diversity


Denmark’s People Like Us is a unique project in the beer world, founded on the principle of swapping old-fashioned charity for a genuine understanding of, and belief in, the people you’re trying to help. It was founded in 2016 by brothers Lars and Jesper Carlsen; Lars – who is himself neurodivergent – was at the time an educator and mentor to people with autistic spectrum diagnoses, many of whom he realised had a special kind of talent, yet who struggled to find a way of contributing to mainstream society.

Lars says: “I developed a real curiosity around why those people, whose minds just work a little differently, weren’t getting on better in society. Why couldn’t they find jobs, why were they being excluded even when the work we’d done together had been excellent? Then I started asking, how could we run a business that did things differently?” 

The idea of starting a brewery with autists in key roles seemed to Lars the perfect vehicle to explore his idea. Unconventional roles could be created to play to individual strengths, and together they could create a high quality product which people would want to buy for its own sake, rather than out of charity.

“It was a struggle at first, getting people to trust in a company with diagnosed people. ‘Could this really work as a real business?’ The first positive interest really came from outside Denmark, particularly from the US and the UK, where the Guardian ran an article on what we were doing. That gave our 2017 crowdfunding round a big boost,” he continues.

The first small batch of beer that Lars brewed as People Like Us was a huge success, selling out practically overnight. It was also around this time that Lars first met head brewer/beer developer Rune Lindgreen, who contacted Lars in 2016 to ask if there was an opening. 

“Rune got in touch to say he felt he had to be involved in this project, because he had been diagnosed with Asperger’s. He already had years of experience from his previous role at Bryggeriet Djaevlebryg, so he really was a perfect fit. So Rune’s been with us from the start, designing recipes, and he now does almost all of the collabs and the brewing.”

Rune is charming and clearly very passionate about the brewing side in particular, speaking with great honesty about his inspirations and the challenges of being a relatively small brewery with such a unique mission. The debate over whether neurodivergence is a bug or a feature has almost become a cliché now, but in terms of Rune’s professional dynamic with Lars, it does seem to have created a powerful match.

“Lars has pretty intense ADHD,” says Rune, “which makes it really funny for me to work with him; I would say that Asperger's and ADHD are kind of like the opposite, right? I like calm, quiet situations, and he doesn't care if it’s noisy as fuck around. He actually kind of likes it. But that's also why he's so good at what he does. Where I'm ‘nose in the trail’, methodical, he’s like ‘okay, there's a new opportunity, let's go in that direction’. Which is awesome - I could never be the CEO of this company. But he's also extremely good at giving people space; he has confidence in my very different way of working, and that’s what makes us a good team.”

Rune’s instincts and preferences as a brewer skew pleasingly old school, favouring balanced West Coast IPAs over “eight taps of hazy pales that all taste the same”. 

“I'm not trying to taste every new beer that comes out, though there are a few breweries whose new releases I get excited about. Personally, I'm focused a bit more on doing really good lagers; not trying to come off as true Czechia lager or German lager or whatever, but still not dry hopping it to death. And for me, that's where the real genius of brewing lies. So I sound like a lot of other older brewers, right?!”

This focus on the art and tradition of brewing, rather than what Rune sees as “marketing”, is a theme that runs throughout our conversation. This may be a reach, but I can’t also help but wonder at the extent to which Rune’s brewing philosophy is shaped by the way his brain works.

“If you look at the classic German breweries, they’d just have a few styles that they would be able to fine tune by brewing over and over again, making the tiniest adjustments and learning how to work with variation in the raw ingredients,” he says. “To me, that is where you build excellence. But at the moment, consumers want new beers; in a way this has been helpful for brewers, because you can just do whatever you like, throw it out there and it’s done. Many of the labels should maybe read 'experiment one', ‘experiment two’ so people are clear that it’s a new beer that’s just been made up. 

“We are seeing a change now, and my hope is that we will come full circle, I guess, on having breweries that are not trying to make beers that taste the same. I want to see beers that are distinctive and personal, or have some kind of profile that reflects where they came from. And this perhaps also means just having five or six core line beers that have been perfected over time.”

People Like Us has been working with the Danish contract brewer Flying Couch for the past six years or so, and it’s a relationship that’s obviously crucial to Rune as head brewer.

“It's a matter of trust, right?” he says. “I make a recipe, but I'm not going to be there all brew day, so I have to trust that when I say use this specific malt and do this specific process in this way, that they actually do it, and they’re not going to use the old hops from the back of the fridge. We know these guys personally – they’re experienced professionals, and contribute their own great ideas. That’s really valuable.

“The downside is that brewing in Denmark is expensive! It's very hard to make money just selling to the Danish market, so we have to look to other countries. But then you’re competing with breweries in Germany and Belgium for example; I love those beers, but they’re cheap as shit compared to Denmark, so it’s very hard to compete.”

This economic reality, combined with the added strain of a prolonged Covid lockdown, finally caught up with People Like Us last year, when the brewery was forced to declare bankruptcy. Thanks in part to the tremendous amount of good will the brewery had managed to accumulate though, and to the simple fact that it was fundamentally a well-run business, it was able to relaunch a few months later, with new investors and a good chunk of the old team still intact, including Lars and Rune. Nonetheless, the episode was particularly traumatic, as Rune explains.

“At the height of our short story, I think we had around 80 people working here. Most of them, maybe 90%, were from three to ten hours per week. So it's not a big company in that way, but we have a big impact on a lot of people, in terms of the value added to their life through working. It takes a long time to build up to that, because a lot of people we are trying to introduce to the work are, for lack of a better word, fragile, and the bankruptcy hit some of them hard. But we are working hard to get back to where we were.”

It's great to see this unique project back on its feet, even if the road back to its peak must be gradual and trodden with patience and care. People Like Us has always brewed great beer – that’s a given – but it’s also always been about much more than that. After a hard couple of years, Lars, Rune and their team have proven their ambition is backed by something even more valuable: true resilience.  

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