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.