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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 mediaeval post of ale conner was far from a popular or sought-after position. Hops are a preservative, so before the introduction of hopping, ale would not keep well and had to be brewed on site, meaning there were many small breweries to visit. In addition, ale frequently "went off" for the same reason, so tasting it was not uniformly pleasant. Finally, as a representative of the authorities and dispenser of fines, an ale-conner could become unpopular in the community. Ale-conners sometimes had to be impressed into service, and the post was often rotated amongst a number of individuals.
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 fallen into disuse in most places.
It is sometimes said that:
The Ale Conner was a type of early tax-man whose job it was to test the quality and strength of beer, not by quaffing, but by sitting in a puddle of it! They travelled from pub to pub clad in sturdy leather britches. Beer was poured on a wooden bench and the Conner sat in it. Depending on how sticky they felt it to be when they stood up, they were able to assess its alcoholic strength and impose the appropriate duty.
However, the accuracy of the colourful legend is doubtful.
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- Cornell, Martyn: Beer, the Story of a Pint