A guide to the Ale Tasting & Bread Weighing ceremony for participants
What is Ale Tasting and Bread Weighing?
Ashburton’s Ale Tasting and Bread Weighing Ceremony celebrates a tradition that dates back to the 14th century. As bread and ale were important staples of the mediaeval diet, their quality and price were significant concerns to the authorities leading to one of the most significant commercial laws in mediaeval England - the Assize of Bread and Ale.
The Leet Court would appoint an Ale Conner to test the quality of ale sold in the pubs and inns whilst the assizes would adjust the weight of bread according to the price of wheat - the price of a “farthing loaf” would remain the same even though the price of wheat fluctuated, so the weight of the loaves would change accordingly.
The bakers produce extraordinary creations for the event
To this day, Ashburton’s Leet Court appoints Ale Tasters and Bread Weighers though their role is purely ceremonial. During the ceremony, the Ale Tasters and Bread Weighers process around the town with members of the Courts preceded by the Marshals, Portreeve, Bailiff and other officers and dignitaries all in mediaeval dress. The procession visits each inn and bakery where beer is quaffed and “tasted”, bread is weighed and certificates awarded. The Bearer of Evergreen presents a sprig of evergreen to each inn to hang above their door to signify that they “do sell good ale here”.
Following the ceremony, the procession makes its way to the Town Centre where the bread collected from the bakeries is auctioned. It’s not unusual to receive bids in excess of £20 for a loaf, particularly as the bakers often produce extraordinary creations for the occasion. The money raised is donated to the Portreeve’s fund and used to support local causes. After the auction the Ale Tasters and other participants waste no time in dispersing to Ashburton’s excellent inns!
An Ancient Tradition
In Anglo Saxon Britain, law and order was maintained by reeves who implemented the decisions of the local court. A port-reeve officiated within a town and a shire-reeve (later known as a “sheriff”) held administrative responsibility for a shire. In most places, Portreeves were replaced by Mayors however, some towns retain the office and sometimes the Mayor is also Portreeve.
Tradition has it that the first Portreeve of Ashburton was appointed over 1200 years ago in the year AD820 around the time of the first Saxon King of England, Egbert. When, in 1977, the Administration of Justice Act abolished ancient courts, Ashburton was one of a very small number of towns allowed to retain theirs. Under the act, Ashburton’s Courts must appoint a Portreeve and make presentments, making the office of Portreeve of Ashburton relatively unique!
The ale tasters and bread weighers are appointed by Ashburton's ancient Leet Court
The Portreeve’s role today is primarily as the social head of the town, attending charitable and fund-raising events and, in conjunction with the Mayor, representing the town. The elected Mayor is the civic head of the town and usually represents the Town Council, the members of which are collectively the Lord of the Borough at the Court and Law Day ceremony and other Courts events.
The Portreeve is appointed at the Court and Law Day ceremony which takes place in St Lawrence Chapel on the fourth Tuesday in November. The Leet Jury then elects the Bailiff, Ale Tasters and Bread Weighers as well as the Viewer of the Markets, Inspector of Trees and two Constables. The Baron Jury elects the Pig Drovers, Viewers of the Watercourses, Searcher and Sealer of Leather, Scavengers and two more Constables.
Who Takes Part?
The ceremony is organised by Ashburton’s Ancient Courts Leet & Baron. Their appointed Ale Tasters and Bread Weighers process around the town with members of the Courts preceded by the Marshals, Town Crier, Portreeve, Bailiff and other officers and dignitaries. There is often a mediaeval band and court jester to entertain onlookers - and the ceremony often blessed by our very own Bishop!
However the ceremony could not take place without the participation of the inns and bakeries in the town who are the real stars of the event. And it’s the onlookers enjoying the spectacle that give it a great atmosphere and make it special.
Who Qualifies as a Baker?
To take part in the ceremony as a bakery an establishment must bake bread on the premises and will need to nominate a Master Baker to take part. Bakeries must also provide at least one loaf for weighing and for the subsequent bread auction that raises funds for the Portreeve’s local causes.
Who Qualifies as an Inn?
To take part in the ceremony as an inn an establishment must serve ale. The landlord will need to take part in the ceremony and provide at least two tankards of ale for the “tasting”. The best dressed Landlord or Landlady is awarded the Portreeve’s Cup after the ceremony.
How Does it Work, What do I Say?
As the procession reaches each establishment the band pauses just past the door (which should be shut) and the ceremony begins. Petals may be scattered at the threshold and then the Marshals knock at the door as the ceremony begins.
The Ale Tasters squeeze every last drop of humour from the spectacle!
As legend has it, the Ale Taster tests the quality of ale by pouring a quantity on a wooden bench and sitting in it wearing leather breeches. A little later he rises from his seat and if his breeches are stuck to the bench this is supposed to be a sign of bad ale! Ashburton’s Ale Tasters take any opportunity to squeeze every last drop of humour from the spectacle that takes place at the numerous drinking establishments around the town.
Whilst legend has arguably given them less to work with, Ashburton’s Bread Weighers more than make up for this with a stock of well rehearsed double-entendres and banter with the Master Bakers of the town.
There is a well rehearsed script, but in practice the ceremony is a piece of street theatre meant to keep traditions alive by entertaining onlookers and participants alike.
Make way for The Portreeve, The Bailiff, The (Ale Tasters / Bread Weighers) and members of the Leet and Baron Juries.
Are you the (Landlord of the Inn / Master Baker of this House)?
Landlord / Master Baker
Aye Master Bailiff!
To the Landlord
I command you to produce two tankards of your ale that my Ale Tasters may drink and judge its quality.
As you command Master Bailiff, here is my best Ale.
To the Master Baker
I command you to produce two of your best and most wholesome loaves of bread in order that my Bread Weighers may weigh and test their weight.
Here are two of my best and most wholesome loaves.
Oyez, Oyez, silence for the (Ale Tasters / Bread Weighers)!
Ale Tasters (in unison)
We [Name], and [Name], official Ale Tasters declare the Landlord do sell good ale!
Bread Weighers (in unison)
We [Name], and [Name], official Bread Weighers declare that the Master Baker do sell wholesome bread of good weight.
Silence for the Portreeve of Ashburton!
To the Landlord
The Ale Tasters of this ancient Borough have tasted your ale and pronounce it good. I therefore hand to you Landlord, this sprig of evergreen to hang at your door, together with a certificate to hang on the wall of your Inn to show all and sundry that your ale is of excellent quality and has been approved by the official Ale Tasters of this town.
To the Master Baker
The Bread Weighers of this ancient Borough have weighed and tasted your bread and pronounce it of correct weight. I therefore hand to you Master Baker this certificate to hang on the wall of your house to show to all and sundry that your bread is of good weight and has been approved by the official Bread Weighers of this town.
God save the Queen!
The final cry is the signal to the band to start playing and move on to the next establishment.
What Should I Wear?
Ale Tasting and Bread Weighing were important activities in mediaeval times and the ceremony celebrates centuries of tradition. To recognise the roots of the ceremony and make it an entertaining event, participants dress up in mediaeval costume. With a little imagination and artistic licence the costumes can add a great deal of fun to the occasion.
When and Where?
The ceremony takes place on the third Saturday in July, it starts at 2pm at the steps of St Lawrence Chapel in St Lawrence Lane and typically ends in a pub!
find us on Google Maps
(*Photo's by John Germon)