Probably the most boring job in a brewery is cleaning casks.
De-shive it, hoik out the remains of the keystone, flush out the lees (complete with fag ends, slugs, crisp packets and on one occasion a Dinky toy), scrub off the label, stick it on the machine, inspect it, fill it .... then do it all again. Over a hundred times a week, and then get ready to start again next week. But there's one thing worse than washing casks, which is counting the little rascals. And then recounting them. How can we have bought so many and have so few in the yard? Where have they gone?
Every brewer I have met is preoccupied with 'the Cask Situation'. If we don't have enough casks, we can't empty the conditioning tanks. With no conditioning space, we can't empty fermenters. And if we have no empty fermenters, we can't brew!!!! So it's not just about getting back our expensive babies; lovingly cleaning and polishing them, recording their movements, sympathising over the dents and touching up the paint jobs. It's about our whole production schedule.
Whilst we are not yet reduced to standing over drinkers, urging them to hurry up so that their next pint can be pulled and we can collect the empty cask, we are beginning to think quite seriously about where we send our casks, and we've already decided to do our own long-distance distribution, having recently reclaimed casks which went out via wholesalers in our early, innocent days. Imagine our surprise last week when a search in a cavernous, dusty warehouse in the depths of Leigh revealled a cask which was last recorded leaving the brewery in May 2008. Where has it been since then? What stories could it tell?
In an ideal world all of our distribution would be to pubs like The Dog & Gun, where a Blonde can be delivered, go on the bar, sell out and be returned to us within a week. In fact all of our beers would be like the Blonde, which sells out so quickly that we're never worried about committing an entire 10 barrel brew to cask in one go, as we know it will sell in days.
But the truth is that there are pubs who will order beer and sit on it for weeks, and beers which will sell at such a rate that full casks rattle around the cold room for weeks. There are landlords who will squirrel away their empties in dark cellars, and landlords who will chuck them out in the yard to be spirited away by Tradeteam who then have to be chased (by us) to get the damn things back. (We have one in Liverpool at the moment - it was collected from Broughton in Furness, went by Tradeteam to Penrith, then to Burton-on-Trent, and it's now in Aintree. We didn't ask them to do it!
So when you pass a pub and see a cask being used as a scaffolding support or as an ash tray, to hold up a wobbly table or just looking lonely, spare a thought for we brewers who spend an inordinate number of hours caring for our babies.