The History and Legend behind Ashburton’s Ale Tasting and Bread Weighing ceremony.
Each year on the third Saturday in July a procession weaves its way somewhat unsteadily through the town, many of the participants dressed in a motley variety of mediaeval garb and cheering and laughing at the spectacle that unfolds at each pub and bakery in the town.
Ashburton’s Ale Tasting and Bread Weighing Ceremony celebrates a tradition that dates back at least 700 years to the 14th century. Bread and ale were such important staples of the mediaeval diet that their quality and price were a significant concern to the authorities. This led to the first law in British history to regulate the production and sale of food - the Assize of Bread and Ale.
The local Leet Court would appoint Ale Conners to test the quality of ale sold in pubs and inns whilst the assizes would adjust the weight of a farthing loaf of bread so that as the price of wheat fluctuated the price of a loaf would remain stable.
Beer is quaffed, bread weighed and a sprig of green hung at the door
To this day, in addition to appointing the Portreeve and Master Bailiff, Ashburton’s Leet Court still appoints Ale Tasters and Bread Weighers although their role is now purely ceremonial. During the Ale Tasting and Bread Weighing ceremony, the Ale Tasters and Bread Weighers process around the town together with the Portreeve, Master Bailiff and other members of Leet and Baron juries and onlookers. The procession visits each pub and bakery where the beer is quaffed and tested, bread is weighed, certificates awarded and a sprig of greenery hung at the door. The landlords and bakers of the town often try to outdo each-other's outlandish dress and following the ceremony the Portreeve's mediaeval cup is awarded to the best dressed landlord or landlady.
Legend has it that the Ale Taster tests the quality of ale by pouring it onto a wooden bench and sitting in it wearing leather breeches. A little later he rises from his seat, if his breeches are stuck to the bench this is supposed to be a sign of bad ale! Ashburton’s Ale Tasters take their role very seriously and miss no 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 to entertain onlookers.
After 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. Money raised from the ceremony is donated to the Portreeve’s fund and used to support local causes.
Following the auction the Ale Tasters and other participants waste no time in dispersing to Ashburton’s excellent ale houses!
The ceremony starts at 2pm in St Lawrence Lane on the third Saturday in July and typically ends in a pub!
(*Photo's by John Germon)