Brewing beer with people power
Photos: Lacada Brewery
Saturday 10 February 2024
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Just fifteen minutes from world famous landmark The Giant’s Causeway, Portrush has connected people from all over the world to Northern Ireland. Each year, this tiny seaside town hosts thousands of tourists, who come to enjoy the region’s renowned surfing scene, or explore their Irish ancestry through the spectacular landscape of their forebears. Perhaps the broad church of people who feel connected to the area is what made Portrush the perfect place to start a cooperatively run, community-owned brewery. Or perhaps it was the foresight of Lacada Brewery Co-op’s open-minded founders that made it possible to open a brewery in a market that’s notoriously hostile to alcohol producers.
It’s a little-known fact that the island of Ireland’s oldest independent brewery was founded in Lisburn, County Antrim, as recently as 1982. While the evolution of modern craft in the US through the 80s and 90s inspired the establishment of a handful of breweries near Belfast in the decades that followed, prior to 2014 Northern Ireland was still distinctly lacking independent breweries. Homebrewer Laurie Davies wanted to start a brewery to help revive independent brewing in Northern Ireland, but also because he believed Antrim’s northernmost coast should have a brewery it could call local.
Though inexperienced when it came to commercial brewing, Laurie knew enough to be sure it would take a village to build a viable brewery from scratch. Embracing reliance on others, rather than pursuing ideas of ownership and control, Laurie co-founded Lacada with Jonathan Owens, a friend who had experience in co-operative schemes and organisations. Together, Laurie, Jonathan and a number of other dedicated individuals crowdfunded upwards of £80,000 to kickstart Lacada in 2014.
The name Lacada derives from Liach Fada, 'the longstone' which refers to a low, mean, rocky outcrop about 300 yards east of the world famous Giant's Causeway. In 1588, a galleass from the Spanish Armada was shipwrecked on this rock, depositing treasure nearby that was only discovered by a diving team in the 1960s. Amidst the wreck, the divers found the ruby encrusted golden salamander that the brewery would later incorporate into its logo. Maritime imagery continues to inspire Lacada’s label artwork, with photographer Gary McCall and other local artists capturing the West Bay, where the brewery is based, from above and below the waves.
You could say that once the brewery was founded, the rest was history, but one gets the distinct impression that the past isn’t something that defines Lacada; rather, it’s a living, breathing entity whose life force comes from whoever chooses to engage with the project.
One thing that has remained consistent over the past nine years is how Lacada defines itself. In its own words, the brewery is “an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly owned and democratically-controlled enterprise”. Though Lacada isn’t constantly open to new members, it currently has approximately 450 co-owners, each with equal voting power when it comes to electing a board of directors each year.
Elected board members take on the position voluntarily and usually meet quarterly, but are also part of subcommittees with interested co-owners that meet on their own schedule to oversee running different parts of the business, for example, sales and marketing or finance. Board -meeting minutes and updates are then shared with all members, who are spread across the UK and Ireland, mainland Europe, the US and Australia.
“It’s a lot more work than people realise,” laughs Stephen O’Kane, who has been on Lacada’s board for four consecutive years now. “I was into my beer, and had a couple of qualifications when it came to beer judging, but I had no idea what it took to run a brewery,” he says, of the time when he first got involved. “Obviously we’re running a business, which isn’t always as cool as brewing and the recipe development that people think they’ll be doing when they volunteer, but at the end of the day, when people are giving up their time, we always try to find things for them to do that they’ll be interested in.”
Stephen says that, of course, not everyone who’s a member is active, but of the overall group, about a third are fervent Lacada enthusiasts who will always buy the beer when they see it, and spread the word when they can. A further, smaller percentage are dedicated homebrewers. Stephen says connecting with the homebrewing community was a real build-it-and-they-will-come moment for Lacada, people really came out of the woodwork, and got in touch because they were interested in being involved in Lacada’s journey.
Of course, attracting passion brings big opinions, and Stephen admits that within a cooperative model, decision making takes longer than it would in a business that isn't run cooperatively. “If you have a business with just one person at the top who tells everybody what to do, sure, you can make decisions very quickly, but nobody feels like they've got a real stake in that,” says Stephen. “Here, if somebody who's a co-owner thinks things could be done differently or better, and they want to put up their hand to join the board, they can do that. That's the great thing about this place, anybody can join in, and make their mark on the progress of the brewery if they want to.”
While you have to be a member, or co-owner, to vote for Lacada’s board, you don’t need to have monetarily invested in the brewery to volunteer there. Stephen says that people will come in and do a bit of painting, help with admin, pack some orders, or run deliveries, all for free, because they’re investing in a lot more than Lacada. In doing so, volunteers broaden the brewery’s definition of value, to include what it can give back to its community.
In a way, cultivating organic interest in beer and brewing is of essential importance to Northern Ireland’s industry, which has steadily declined over the last century. Stephen tells me that a new pub licence hasn’t been issued in Northern Ireland since 1905, and that the number of licences in Northern Ireland can only go down. Now, if you want to open a pub or off-licence, you have to find someone willing to sell you their licence, or go to speciality lawyers who work in the alcohol licensing space.
Stephen says that while the private market that sprung up around alcohol licences is obviously what caused the astronomical increase in their value, it's the cost of the licence to publicans starting out that leaves them vulnerable to business with big beer. “Anyone who takes over a pub, or opens a pub, does so with a massive liability on their books, and starts life in a massive financial hole. And so again, if C&C (Tennents) or Diageo (Guiness) approach you with an offer of a lot of money to sign a multi-year contract, it’s hard to turn down unless you’ve got very deep pockets and are committed to promoting local beer, and independent breweries.”
With this dynamic between licensing law and big corporations squashing healthy competition, preventing diversity within a pub’s offering, it’s only more amazing that a tiny brewery in Portrush is volunteer-led, run by people who are hungry to learn, and for the sake of local people having something they can call their own.
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