A long forgotten profession, the ale-conner (or ale-taster), was an important and upstanding member of society from at least the 1100s. Their job was to insure that all breweries were making quality beer. The position, in fact, persisted until the early part of the 20th century, when it became entirely ceremonial.
The Wikipedia entry:
An ale-Conner (sometimes aleconner) was an officer appointed yearly at the court-leet of ancient English communities to ensure the goodness and wholesomeness of bread, ale, and beer. There were many different names for this position which varied from place to place: “ale-tasters,” gustatores cervisiae, “ale-founders,” and “ale-conners”. Ale-Conners were also often trusted to ensure that the beer was sold at a fair price. Historically, four ale-Conners were chosen annually by the common-hall of the city.
Ale-Conners were sworn “to examine and assay the beer and ale, and to take care that they were good and wholesome, and sold at proper prices according to the assize; and also to present all defaults of brewers to the next court-leet.”
The tradition was maintained in London into the 20th century. The 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica reports:
In London, four ale-conners, whose duty it is to examine the measures used by beer and liquor sellers to guard against fraud, are still chosen annually by the liverymen in common hall assembled on Midsummer Day. Since ale and beer have become excisable commodities the custom of appointing ale-tasters has in most places fallen into disuse.
The title was also used of officers chosen by the liverymen in London to inspect the measures used in the public houses. The title is a sinecure.
And from the 1828 Webster’s Dictionary:
A’LE-CONNER, n. [ale and con, to know or see.]
An officer in London, whose business is to inspect the measures used in public houses, to prevent frauds in selling liquors. four of these are chosen annually by the livery men, in common hall, on midsummer’s day.
Curiously, an odd notion crept into the lore of the profession about how they actually accomplished their job. According to the wonderful Martyn Cornell at his Zythophile blog, it all began in a 1911 publication entitled Frederick Hackwood’s Inns, Ales and Drinking Customs of Old England. In only this book “but not, significantly, in any of the major 19th century books on beer,” the author says “that an unnamed ‘authority’ said the ‘official ale tester’, in his leather breeches, would ‘enter an inn unexpectedly, draw a glass of ale, pour it on a wooden bench, and then sit down in the little puddle he had made.’ After half an hour he would attempt to rise, and if his breeches had stuck to the bench the ale had too much sugar in it, and was thus impure, Hackwood claimed.
Yup, you read that correctly, he wrote that the ale-conner poured the beer on his chair and sat on it to determine if it was a good ale. This strange tale was repeated in other countries and persists even today in London, where ceremonial ale-conners continue as a City tradition, where they continue the story.
“First I taste the ales. Then a pint of ale is poured on a wooden bench and I have to sit down on it in the leather breeches that we wear especially for the occasion. After one minute I stand up. If ale does not stick to the breeches, it is not the right consistency. Afterwards I announce: ‘I proclaim this ale good quality. God save the Queen.’ And everyone proceeds to get merry. No pub has failed the test yet.”
Humorously, someone named Greg used Lego blocks to illustrate how this would work:
How To Be An Ale Conner
Are you fed up with cleaning up other people’s mess? Want a job that’s a bit less smelly? (and a bit more sticky!) Do you like drinking beer and wearing leather trousers? Then you should become an ale conner! These vignettes will teach you the basics…
1) Find a place that serves ale
2) Buy a pint of ale to test
3) Pour half the beer onto a wooden stool
4) Sit on the stool (and drink the rest of the ale!)
5) After 30 minutes stand up – if your leather trousers stick to the seat then the ale contains too much unfermented sugar. Fine the brewer (and confiscate the ale!)
Not surprisingly, testing beer by sitting on it all hogwash. I’m more amazed that anyone ever believed it. Cornell skewers this notion in his typical blazing fashion in Myth 3: Medieval ale-conners wore leather breeches and tested ale by pouring some on a wooden bench and then sitting in it and seeing if they stuck to the bench. Cornell expresses his own surprise over actually trying it far more wittily than I could. “Clearly your friends would think you were a couple of gallons short of the full firkin if you deliberately plonked yourself in a puddle of beer, ruining your trousers and the furniture at the same time, and I doubt the pub would be overwhelmed at your soaking its seats with liquid.”
Despite having never been true at all, the myth of the ale-conner “escaped into the wild,” and continues to be repeated endlessly. But it certainly makes for some hilarious Lego fun.