When pubs were forced to close, their cellars had to be emptied of beer. That tricky task fell to Draymen, like Ed Sullivan and John Peters.

We lifted up to 8 tonnes of unused beer from pub cellars a day

On the night in March 2020 when the Prime Minister suddenly told pubs to shut their doors, it is estimated that there were around 50 million pints left unsupped in pub cellars. Beer doesn’t like being left unused. It has a limited shelf-life and spoils after a few months. There’s also a good chance it could explode. So, it was important that unused and part-used kegs and casks were lifted from cellars. And that task fell to the beer delivery team, the draymen. Draymen not only deliver to Greene King managed and leased pubs, but also to freehouses – basically, any venue that serves Greene King beer. So, back in spring 2020 the dray teams had the unique challenge of collecting 120,000 firkins of beer from 6,000 closed pubs, while working under Covid restrictions.

“Being a drayman is a physically demanding job, even under normal circumstances. We’re rolling and lifting kegs weighing 50 to 120kg, day in and day out, sometimes for 50+ hours a week,” says drayman, Ed Sullivan. “My physio says it’s in the top tier in terms of physicality, along with firefighters. But lifting these heavy kegs out of cellars was a whole new level of physical difficulty for all us.”

Heavy Lifting

Ed has worked for Greene King since 2000 and is one half of a dray pair, along with John Peters, who’s been a drayman since 2018. Together they work out of Westgate Brewery in Bury St Edmunds, arriving before 5am to load 20, 50 and 100-litre kegs on to trucks (if it’s an extra busy day their truck will be pre-loaded for them). The pair usually deliver to Essex, Hertfordshire and Suffolk, but more flexibility was required during the pandemic: usual routes changed, as did teams. “For lifting full, heavy kegs out of cellars we could only use the lorries that had tail lifts, and not all lorries had them,” says Ed, who was furloughed early on due to asthma. John continued working with another dray pair, as lifting beer out of cellars is a three-man job. “We’re used to moving empty kegs – but very rarely do we lift a full one,” says John. “And if we do, it’s only ever a single keg. On one visit, during the first lockdown, we lifted 50 or 60.”

Removing heavy kegs from 500-year-old pub cellars in central London, like the cramped ‘bear pit’ cellar at Prospect of Whitby on the River Thames, required ingenuity. “We used a purpose-built electronic hoist for the old, narrow London pub cellars,” says John.

The winch-like hoist was designed and tested especially for this purpose by the transport team in Bury St Edmunds. Draymen were then trained to use it safely in confined spaces before special permission was gained for its use in London boroughs.

“For most other pubs we used a retrieval net,” explains John. “One pub manager was curious to see what invention we were going to use to bring the beer up, and was very amused when she realised it was just three men and a big long net, like fishing for beer.”

A mechanical hoist was quickly designed to retrieve heavy, full kegs from old, deep, narrow London pub cellars

Net Gains

The nets were laid flat on the cellar floor and a keg was rolled onto it, with the two ends secured at surface level by kegs as anchor points. One drayman stayed in the cellar while the other two hauled the keg up and then placed it on the tail lift. “There was a technique to it,” says John. “There’s not much room to move in a cellar – and pubs might enjoy regular refurbishment, but cellars rarely do. Some are small and strangely shaped with voids where walls should be and crumbling mortar.”

It’s estimated that each dray team lifted an average of 4–8 tonnes of unused beer a day in lockdown one. They returned it all to the car park at Westgate Brewery. All own-brewed beer was disposed of responsibly using an environmentally sustainable method, known as anaerobic digestion. Approximately 100 tankers-worth was disposed of in this way, the resulting non-alcoholic slurry was then used for farm animal feed. A further 200,000 containers were sent back to other brewers for them to dispose of themselves.

During the third lockdown John was also furloughed. Both he and Ed were happy to go back to work when restrictions eased in spring 2021, for lots of reasons. “You need to consume a lot of calories in this job, and I forgot to stop eating like a drayman,” says Ed. “I put on four stone.” John was keen to get back to normal fitness levels, too. “It was impossible to replicate the level of activity you get from doing this job. I certainly felt the aches and strains when I first returned to work, but it was good to be back. Face masks, gloves, sanitiser, windows open, regular cleaning of the truck… it was the new normal, but it was some kind of normality, at last.”