"I can trace my ancestry back to a protoplasmal
primordial atomic globule"
- Pooh-Bar in The Mikado Act 1 (W.S. Gilbert).
Alefounders, known in some places as aleconners or aletasters, were local officials appointed to oversee the brewing of ale and beer and to assure the quality of the final product. This may well have been even more important than you think - beer would often have been safer to drink than water, the brewing process removing microbial and other contaminants.
It seems testing of ale involved pouring it out, hence "founder" from the Latin fundere - to pour out (cf iron foundry, bell foundry etc) (White, 1886). They existed at least as far back as the eleventh century and in some places were still being appointed in the middle of the nineteenth century.
The aleconners' oath is given in the Liber Albus (Carpenter, 1419):
You shall swear that you shall know of no brewer or brewster, cook, or pie-baker, in your ward who sells the gallon of the best ale for more than one penny half-penny, or the gallon of second for more than one penny, or otherwise than by measure, sealed, and full of clean ale; or who brews less than he used to do before this cry by reason hereof, or withdraws himself from following his trade, the rather by reason of this cry; or if any person shall do contrary to any one of these points, you shall certify to the Alderman of your ward thereof, and of their names. And that you, so soon as you shall be required to taste ale of any brewer or brewster, shall be ready to do the same; and in case that it be less good than it used to be before this cry, you, by assent of your Aldermen, shall set a reasonable price thereon, according to your discretion; and if any one shall afterwards sell the same above the said price, unto your said Alderman, you shall certify the same. And that for gift, promise, knowledge, hate, or other cause whatsoever, no brewer, brewster, huckster, cook or pie-baker, who acts against any one of the points aforesaid, you shall conceal, spare, or tortiously aggrieve; nor when you are required to taste ale shall absent yourself without reasonable cause and true; but all things which unto your office pertain to do you shall well and lawfully do. So God you help, and the Saints.
For doing all this, his pay (in 1483) was as set forth by the Abbot of Cockerham (Baines, 1836) "Yai sall gyf Ale-fwnders a fwnding galon or else a taste of ylke vessell". Of course, being paid in ale had its effect:
A nose he had that gan show
What liquor he loved I trow;
For he had before long seven yeare,
Beene of the towne the ale conner.
- From the Cobler of Canterburie (1608) (Ouvry, 1862)
The name appears to have originated in Suffolk or Essex, possibly with one, as yet unidentified, individual.
Last updated 22nd June 1998 by Peter Alefounder