People Like Us

Richard Croasdale catches up with the brewery that’s reinventing the job market for those with an autism diagnosis


Denmark’s People Like Us is a unique project in the beer world, whose success shows what can happen if you swap 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 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.

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How could we run a business that did things differently?

“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.

“We ran out of our beer, so I went to Mikkel [Borg Bjergsø, founder of Mikkeller] who was very helpful, and is still helping us to this day. He shared his organisation with us, and put us in touch with DeProef, who started contract brewing for us, giving us a much larger capacity and greater control over our processes. Mikkel’s been a great ongoing source of help and advice whenever we’ve needed it – it’s so great.”

Another key development was the appointment of 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. He’s also in regular contact with Mikkel, jamming about his ideas, what is right, what kind of beers should we be doing. It’s a really creative partnership,” says Lars.

The beers themselves have always been truly excellent, with a style both distinctive and yet clearly influenced by Mikkeller. I remember first encountering the brewery at 2017’s Annual Icelandic Beer Festival and being blown away by its creativity. It’s important for Lars that each of the beers tells a story and has meaning for his team. Possibly the best example of this is People Like Us’ ‘dancing’ series, inspired by the brewery’s in-house dancer Bjarke Østergaard.

“It may seem strange for a brewery to have a dancer, but from the start it’s been core to who we are, creating jobs that allow people to share their talent,” says Lars. “So we had Bjarke, who was a good dancer, but couldn’t find a way in to the job market, so I thought let’s make a dancing beer! Fortunately, he thought that idea was stupid but amazing.”

The first beer in this series was Cha Cha Cherry, which was launched at MBCC in 2017, followed by Tango, a Berliner Weisse with mango. Its brand new dancing beer, Spontan Goes Spontan – a collaboration with Mikkeller – is a spontaneously fermented beer with bergamot.

“This particular project is quite crazy, because we started two years ago and didn’t know how far we could take it. But now Bjarke is dancing with a Royal Ballet dancer, and Mikkel is doing the beer with us, and we have Aaron Dessner from The National doing the music. And that’s how it should work, that’s how we can get our people with diagnoses into the beer, into the story and into the projects in a way that creates jobs.”

I note that Lars has been deliberately referring to “people with diagnoses” during our conversation, so I ask if the brewery has considered broadening out beyond autism, to other conditions.

“I’ve been very focused on autism because that was where I started to work,” he says. “But I recently met some interesting people from the Danish Army, who asked me ‘if you can work with people with autism, why don't you work with war veterans with PTSD?’. It was a great question, and really got me thinking. So we started to create some other projects for people with that diagnosis, and I found they could support each other, they could coach each other. It’s quite amazing.”

People Like Us currently employs 60 people, 90% of whom have some sort of diagnosis. But Lars is keen to stress that it is a for-profit business, not a charity, and can compete with other breweries in terms of perfecting and selling its beer.

“As of two months ago our strategy was to grow our exports this year, with a target of eight countries by the end of 2020. Obviously because of coronavirus we’ve had to delay that, but it’s still our next step,” says Lars.

You just need to trust the people you’re working with

“Ultimately though, I hope the more successful we become, the more other companies will see us and learn from us. Because anyone could do this – you just need to trust the people you’re working with, playing to their talents and potential rather than trying to shoe-horn them into unsuitable roles. That way, we’ve ended up with a lot of people who are very dedicated and exceptionally good at what they do, probably better than you or I. 

“Get curious about other people. You may think you have nothing in common, but if you would take 10 or 20 minutes talking with the person, I promise you will be inspired and see they have something to say.”

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