The Most Unpopular Job In Greenwich

Well – maybe not the most unpopular job in medieval Greenwich. That prize goes, without a doubt, to the Greenwich gong-farmers – a euphemism for the poor sods who had to clean out the town’s cess pits.

But you’d have thought the job of Beer Taster would be sought-after, rather than avoided at all costs. And you’d be wrong.

In fact it was so unappreciated that in 1318, one Henry Boyn was dragged up before the beak at Greenwich Manor Court, and fined twelvepence for not performing his duties as tastitor cerevisie . A few years later, in 1327, the same court had to force Walter Wyntercoker to even take up the post.

The reasons seem twofold. Firstly, the beer was ghastly. I’m sure Phantom Brewmaster Rod could tell you more, but from what I can tell, it wasn’t made with hops until the end of the 14th C, just malt, yeast and water, so it was, apparently, very strong, but also sickly-sweet. Added to that it had no keeping qualities whatsoever, so it had to be drunk very young – or it went off. Because it couldn’t be moved, it had to be brewed on site at every inn.

The law was quite clear. The 1266 Assize of Bread and Ale said “Brewers in cities ought and may well afford to sell two gallons of ale for a peny and, out of the cities, to sell three gallons for a peny.” No added ingredients were permitted, and certainly no bulking agents.

Whoever had to go around checking the beer was going to be highly unpopular with anyone who was trying to palm-off old stuff on their customers, especially if they’d tried adding ‘extras’ to make it go further.

Which brings me to the second reason why the job wasn’t enjoyable. It was damn hard work. In 1327-28, it took two guys just to cover Greenwich – one for the Westende, the other for the Eastende – and over 50 people were fined for breaking the rules. So that no one had to do it for too long, the post was rotated, but it made no difference. No one likes a snitch.

Walter Wyntercoker was on the rota, as was another family member, I guess it could have been his wife, Christine. It was all a bit embarrassing, as they’d both been fined at various times for breaking the assize themselves.

This makes me think that it was the actual brewers who were expected to take it in turns to police other brewers, which just doesn’t sound good to me. It would be like asking banks to regulate themselves, which we’d never dream of, would we…

Things got a bit better with the introduction of hops. It meant the beer kept longer, and didn’t need to be brewed ‘in-house’ at every pub any more. The job of brewer began to be a much more of a profession in itself, instead of brewers having to be publicans too. It wasn’t the end of the ale-tasters – and over the years the pensioners especially found much to complain about, but at least it never got to such ridiculous levels again.

I daresay we’ll have no such problems with the lovely new brewery coming our way soon. More beer another day.

8 Comments to “The Most Unpopular Job In Greenwich”

  1. Dazza says:

    I bet there were quite a few more applications for the Modern version of the job! Hic! Hic!

  2. The Greenwich Phantom says:

    I vaguely remember something about the tester having to wear leather breeches, to pour beer onto a bench and sit down on it – if he stuck to the bench, the beer was 'good.' Of course this might be a tale. Or I could have made it up in a particularly weird dream.

  3. Rod says:

    "I bet there were quite a few more applications for the Modern version of the job!"
    Sorry Dazza – the position's taken :-}

    The Ale-Teller in lederhosen is, so far as all research indicates, a myth. Sorry. It's a good story……

    The Phantom is (partly) right about the addition of hops helping to preserve the beer. Saxon ale (from the Norse) had no hops. The Flemish introduced hops to this country and this brew was called "beer" (from the German). For several centuries "ale" and "beer" were different drinks. Hops do help to preserve and disinfect the beer, but the really vital point is that, to get the oils and alpha acids from the hops into the beer it had to be BOILED. Boiling killed the bugs, so the beer became a product with a shelf-life, which could be transported and sold. Brewing ale was often done at home, by Mum – it was part of cooking, if you like. However, Beer brewing became, as the Phantom says, more of a profession once boiling became part of the process, with men taking over. The main reason for it becoming more of a specialist trade was that, to boil beer you needed a large metal kettle, which was a very expensive item (a mash tun, in which the malt is mixed with hot water could be made of wood).
    Boiled, hopped, beer was a much better, more stable, product, and this is the start of professional brewing in this country.

  4. Dave says:


    Perhaps you can explain the process for making that other inferior product in this country, known as Lager.

    Although I wouldn't put the German version in the same category.

  5. scared of chives says:

    cheers Rod – very interesting…

  6. rod says:

    "Perhaps you can explain the process for making that other inferior product in this country, known as Lager"

    There is nothing inherently inferior about lager – in fact the whole reason for inventing lager was to produce a better, more stable beer (using bottom fermenting yeasts). As you say, the Germans produce great beers, and the word "lager" is German meaning to store or mature. The concept of maturing the beer, in itself, implies a quality product.

    Lager is brewed in very much the same way as any other beer – the main difference between lager and English cask beer is the yeast. English cask beer (what some people call "real ale") uses a top fermenting yeast and relatively warm fermentation which adds flavours of its own to the beer.
    Lager uses a bottom fermenting yeast and cold fermentation allowing the ingredients to speak for themselves, within a crisper, "cleaner" flavour.

    Mass-produced lagers are probably not brewed with the best ingredients, are not "lagered" (I've heard brewers' horror stories of certain international brands going from mash to can in 3 days) and crucially are pasturised.
    Pasteurisation kills flavour, and means the beer has to be fizzed up like Coke. This is why industrial cooking lager is so gassy, whilst a beer that hasn't been pasteurised has a gentle, natural carbonation, from the natural CO2 produced during fermentation.

    The farmhouse breweries of Franken, in Northern Bavaria, produce beautiful copper-coloured lagers, full of flavour, with natural, very gentle, carbonation. It is often served by gravity, straight from a wooden cask at cellar temperature (ie it doesn't make your fillings hurt). "Real ale" fans love it.

    There are many, very valid, reasons for hating the mass-produced slop that fills most of our pubs, but the fact that it's "lager" ie bottom fermented, shouldn't be one of them.

  7. Dave says:


    Thanks for the in depth explanation.

    It was the so called 'Lager' that my comments were aimed at. Stuff like Fosters and Carling which are an abomination, could be sold as an emetic if served at room temperature, and lets face it, there is more of that sold in this country than the quality product.

    Most of it would not be allowed on the market under German beer purity laws.

  8. rod says:

    "Most of it would not be allowed on the market under German beer purity laws."

    Dave – none of it would.