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.