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

Think about it: if a friend hands you a pint of beer in a pub and says: “What do you think of that?”, do you (a) take a swallow or (b) pour some of the beer onto your chair and then sit in it?

Clearly your friends would think you were a couple of gallons short of the full firkin if you deliberately plonked yourself into 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.

And yet, while it seems supremely obvious that by far the speediest, most reliable way of testing whether ale or beer is fit to be served must be to taste it, the myth persists that the medieval ale-conner or ale-taster, who was a person appointed by the city, town or parish to assess the quality of ale on sale in the district, would test an alewife’s latest brew by the bizarre practice of pouring some of the ale on a wooden bench and then sitting in it in his leather breeches.

The story appears in Frederick Hackwood’s Inns, Ales and Drinking Customs of Old England of 1911 (but not, significantly, in any of the major 19th century books on beer), where Hackwood claims 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.

Not everybody agrees that sticky was bad: HS Corran, in A History of Brewing (1975) says that if the ale-conner’s “leather breeches stuck to the bench the ale was the right quality” (my emphasis). But sticky would not prove anything either way: very strong ale, above 1120 OG, could be perfectly drinkable and sweet enough, when it dried, to stick a glass to a table. In any case, if an ale was so sweet it would stick a man’s leather breeches to a wooden bench, it didn’t need a wait of half an hour: the sweetness would be instantly obvious at the first sip.

The “ale-taster sitting in a puddle of beer” story also occurs in German tradition (where the ale-taster was supposed to have worn trousers made of stag’s leather); in Flanders; in Alsace (where the “bierkieser”, or beer tester, had to sit still for a whole hour) and in a Czech version, where the protagonists are reversed and an alderman made the brewer sit in the ale until it had dried. If the bench stuck to the Bohemian brewer’s leather trousers, this story said, the ale was good and the brewer went unpunished.

However, in Britain, at least, there is no known contemporary evidence at all for ale conners testing beer in this peculiar way. The oaths that medieval ale conners were required to swear spoke only of them having to be prepared to taste ale when it went on sale, not sit in it. One statute, enacted in the time of William I, King of Scotland between 1165 and 1214 when the Scottish kingdom still had a claim to Northumberland, insists that the “taisters of ale” should not

“fill their bellies (or drink overmuckle) in the time of the tasting swa that they tine and losse the discretion of gusting or tasting.”

The ale-tasters were also ordered not to enter the alehouse, but

they sould stand without in the middes of the street, before the dure, and sould send ane of their company in the house, with ane Serjeant, quha sall choose the pot, quereof he will taiste, as please him, and thereof sall offer to his companions, to be taisted by them and discerned according to the law made thereanent.”

Another version of the tale brings the test two or three centuries closer to the present. It says, correctly, that after the first tax on beer was introduced in Britain in 1643, there were two different rates, depending on the strength of the brew, and the “gauger” (exciseman) had only his palate to tell him what was strong beer and what was weak. This was supplemented “at one time”, the story claims, by an “official test” which involved the gauger sitting in his leather breeches in a pool of beer for 30 minutes. If he stuck, the beer was “strong” and paid the higher duty rate, if not it was “small” and liable for the lower rate.

Once again there seems no contemporary evidence to support this. A digest published in 1707 of the regulations covering the excise of beer said the “gager” (sic) had the right to taste drink on any brewer’s dray, and enter any innkeeper’s cellars to taste the ale or beer, but nothing was mentioned about sitting in sticky puddles.

The ceremony of testing the beer is supposed to take place every ten years at the Tiger pub on Tower Hill, London, when the Lord Mayor, his Sheriffs and the aldermen allegedly watch a member of the “Society of Ale Conners” test the beer’s strength by sitting in a pool of beer poured onto a stool.

This story, which appears in a couple of books published in the 1960s, is completely untrue – they don’t, and never did. In 1949 the Tiger was the scene of a revival of the custom of hoisting an “ale garland” of holly and laurel outside City of London pubs, which was attended by the Lord Mayor, the City ale conners (who are still appointed today), and the Master, Wardens and Liverymen of the Brewers’ Company. The ale was tasted by the ale conners, but not sat in, and there is no evidence that the Lord Mayor and the ale conners came back to the Tiger in subsequent decades, or ever intended to.

Somehow, alas, this story has escaped into the wild, and forms the basis for an utterly spurious “tradition” now apparently carried out by the City of London’s surviving ale conners. Stop it at once, gentlemen – you’re living a lie.

16 thoughts on “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

  1. Excellent. I just saw the Ale Conners on Griff Rhys Jones’ show on ITV, and thought ‘that can’t be true, I’ll check on the internet’.
    Delighted to learn it’s all made up…

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  2. The Court Leat at Wareham, Dorset, still has an Ale Conner who actually does wear leather breeches. His entourage is equipped with an oak seat over which beer is poured and the guy does sit in a puddle of the ale for thirty minutes and then gets up. This happens every November over the course of a week in all pubs in the town and the Manor of Wareham. As well as this somewhat ridiculous exercise, the weight of loaves of bread are also weighed and the chimney/ies of every pub is looked up to make sure it’s been cleaned. Privvies are also examined as are any cesspools stil in existence in pubs – though not may of those, although one or two of the pubs might be thought of as cesspools especially if selling Badger.

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    • I’d guarantee this “tradition” in Wareham is no older than 15-25 years, if that … the whole breeches-beer-bench thing is simply not true.

      Old Dorset joke: “Is this the way to Wareham?” “No, you hafta soak ‘em in beer first …”

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  3. I had certainly been conned by this myth but it shows the power of the printed word I must admit it sounded dodgy I certainly would not willingly sit in a puddle of beer! or as I am not a Bavarian willingly wear leather shorts! I’d much prefer to drink the brew and see then if it tasted good (Usually does!)

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  4. I recently acquired an early 20th cent. brass plaque made by Dehls & Stein, a chemical supply house in Newark, NJ. On it, it depicts three cavaliers in a pub getting up to leave, with the bench they were sitting on glued to their behinds.

    I had been told that these three cavaliers would visit their local tavern, run up their tab and leave without paying. After many times of doing this to the innkeeper, he finally put glue on their bench – and this is the result.

    Is anyone familiar w/ this scene, and can you tell me more about it? I’m certain that it’s copied from a famous drawing/etching.

    Thanks !

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    • I also have that plaque passed down from my grandfather who was a german brew master. he came to america around 1913. the scene is as you described. three drinkers standing with the bench stuck to their behinds. they look displeased. it’s dated 1938. I also have another dated 1937. this one depicts a Godlike man in robes and crown lifting a stein. in bold letters at the bottom states in german,”God save hops and malt.” any idea of their value?

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      • Dehls & Stein actually produced three of these plaques, and the one you describe is Gambrinus, “the patron saint of beer”, altho he was never an actual saint. The third plaque is undated, and may have been the first in the series. It depicts the brewers’ symbol (the tub with tools sticking out), flanked by two lions as supporters, and surmounted by scrolling hops vines and some barley. It too, has a scroll at the bottom that says, “God save hops and malt”.
        Dehls & Stein was a chemical supply house that was situated in New Jersey that sold chemicals to the brewing industry. These plaques were probably given to the various breweries/brewmasters as advertising.

        The value of these plaques averages $75-125 on eBay.

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  5. Pingback: IanVisits » Job vacancy – an Ale Taster for Spitalfields market

  6. Talk about not being able to kill something that isn’t true: See Barney’s comment above. Gambrinus cannot be a / the Patron Saint of beer!
    From my web site:

    Misnomer No. 1 = Gambrinus is called “The Patron Saint of Beer”! Gambrinus may be the “King of Beer”, BUT he is not the “Patron Saint of beer “, nor is he even a Patron Saint of anything!

    That Gambrinus is the “Patron Saint” of beer is really a MISNOMER that has been floating around the world and especially the SCI (Stein Collector’s International) circle for quite some time. This is mostly due to David Harr’s article in Prosit, (Winter 2002) on what certain character stein forms mean. This misnomer now appears to have originally from SCI’s master steinologist (and dear friend) Mike Wald, who was of the Jewish faith and may not have understood the real meaning of [1] the word “Patron” or [2] “Saint”, or [3] the use of the phrase “Patron Saint.”

    Even Wikipedia qualifies this title by saying: Gambrinus is a legendary King of Flanders, and an “unofficial patron saint” of beer or beer brewing.

    DEFINITION OF PATRON:
    1. A person whose support or protection is solicited or acknowledged by the dedication of a book or other work.

    DEFINITION OF SAINT:
    1. Any of certain persons of exceptional holiness of life, formally recognized as such by the Christian Church, esp. by canonization. 2. a person of great holiness, virtue, or benevolence. 3. a founder, sponsor, or patron, as of a movement or organization.

    DEFINITION OF PATRON SAINT.
    1. A saint regarded as the special guardian of a person, group, trade, country, etc.
    As can be seen above by the rudimentary definitions taken from “Info Please” on the web. Gambrinus could:
    [1] not have ever been recognized by the Christian (read Roman Catholic or Orthodox) churches, as Gambrinus was never a real person. He is a legend.
    [2] not have been a patron saint “of beer”, as “beer” is not a person or group; beer is an inanimate object.

    Gambrinus could never have been a patron saint of the beer brewers or beer keg makers or anything beer related due to condition No. 1 (above) alone.

    And to beat that already “dead horse”: Another definition from “Catholic Online”; What is a patron saint?
    “Patron saints are chosen as special protectors or guardians over areas of life. These areas can include occupations, illnesses, churches, countries, causes — anything that is important to us. The earliest records show that people and churches were named after apostles and martyrs as early as the fourth century.
    Recently, the popes have named patron saints but patrons can be chosen by other individuals or groups as well. Patron saints are often chosen today because an interest, talent, or event in their lives overlaps with the special area.” (EDITOR’S NOTE : IN OTHER WORDS THEY HAVE HAD TO HAVE BEEN LIVING ! – NOT A LEGEND !)
    “For example, Francis of Assisi loved nature and so he is patron of ecologists. Francis de Sales was a writer and so he is patron of journalists and writers. Clare of Assisi was named patron of television because one Christmas when she was too ill to leave her bed she saw and heard Christmas Mass — even though it was taking place miles away.” .Angels can also be named as patron saints. A patron saint can help us when we follow the example of that saint’s life and when we ask for that saint’s intercessory prayers to God.

    Some real patron saints of BEER / BREWERS as seen on the internet: [1] Saint Arnold, Austrian year 580. [2] Arnold (Arnoul) of Soissons , Belgian (ca 1040 – 1087). [3] and there are 100’s more as every city’s brewer’s guild was allowed to name its preferred saint.

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  7. Great article. I wonder if this fable has something to do with another brewing tradition is often written about? I think it was that German brew-masters when checking the hot sweet wort would see how strong it is by seeing if their leather pants or apron would stick to a bench. I am a home-brewer and have lots of literature so if I remember what book it came from I’ll post the details.

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  8. Interesting discussion. I am not steeped in brewing lore, but did come upon this aside in a politically charged newspaper piece from “the colonies” in 1771. In it American revolutionary Dr. Joseph Warren of Boston, writing under the pseudonym Mucius Scaevola, criticizes the Tory governor of Massachusetts Province, Thomas Hutchinson, for overstepping the limits of Royal authority relative to the press. Wrote Warren, “You still keep cobling a wretched pattern, which all your art will never form into a tolerable any thing, nor all your care in this engagement prevent your bench from sticking to your breeches.” One could read this as a likening exposure of bad government policy to the identification of an inferior beer as discussed in this blog. If so, it would tend to verify a common knowledge of the practice, if not its usage, in Colonial New England in the 18th century. btw, I am the modern biographer of Dr. Joseph Warren, one of those patriots whose activities had set America apart from the rest of the British world. The precise reference is to The Massachusetts Spy (a Whig-leaning Boston newspaper of the time), Vol.I, Issue 44, page 175, January 2, 1772.

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  9. You seem to be missing the point of the test, which was to find the amount of sugar in the wort BEFORE fermentation. Naturally, the higher the amount of sugar fermented means the higher the alcohol content in the finished product. A thin beer with little or no body can have a higher alcohol content than a beer which appears to have more substance, and a sweet beer could mean that not all the sugar had been converted to alcohol, so a taste test simply wouldn’t work. According to the story / myth, the conner would ask the brewer for a sample of the wort for testing, and enjoy a pint while he was waiting! These days we use a hydrometer for testing the specific gravity of the wort prior to fermentation, but a sugar test could have been completely feasible in medieval times.

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    • You seem to be reading into the stories things that aren’t there. In none of the tales does anyone talk about testing the wort pre-brewing. They all talk about pouring the brewed beer onto the bench. If you can find a version that says otherwise, I would be interested in seeing it. And what good would a sugar test have done as a judgment on the fermented beer sold to the public? The brewer might have produced a wort loaded with sugar, but been such a bad brewer that he couldn’t turn that wort into decent beer. Sorry, two out of ten on this one. Try again.

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