A beer seller was a person that made beer and drank it or sold it.
As the name implies, the selling was the important aspect - a brewer might not necessarily sell his beer retail, and whilst a tavenkeeper or innkeeper might both brew and sell beer, they would also be expected to provide other services (not least somewhere to drink the beer). A beer seller might, potentially, be exactly that and leave their customers to find their own drinking spot.
Arguably the beer seller need not even brew beer - in some times and places, especially where a crowd gathers, he might simply stand there next to a barrel that he bought from someone else, selling the stuff with a ladle (or the old school cup on a chain). He might also wheel a barrel about on a hand cart.
Beer selling could quite often be a fairly easy-entry business - where there was no legal restriction on who was allowed to make or sell alcohol, and especially in the countryside, anyone with surplus homebrew could hang up a shingle (or, in England, a bushy bundle of twigs) to advertise the stuff for sale. You might have to deal with an ale conner in town, but out in the sticks things were likely to be a lot woolier.
Of course, this "brew what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law" philosophy wasn't always the case. As should be expected, these things varied a lot by location and era. Beer is historically an important resource and product. It was safer to drink than the local water in many communities and eras. It was brewed from the same grains that can also be baked into bread, which is a far more efficient way to get your calories and nutrition. It was a cornerstone component of the grain-based local economy. As a result, beer was one of the commodities that governments have often taken an interest in and regulated. Historical record shows that as far back as the 12th Century, European governments (including England, Norway, the Holy Roman Empire and the Low Countries) instituted laws restricting beer production and sale during times of famine or blight. Steps short of the outright banning of sale or brewing included dictating that brewers water-down their beer, or brew only using grain that wasn't fit for eating or baking. The first step was usually the banning of the export of beer, so as to keep the crops for local use, followed by the regulating of what crops could be used in brewing and in what numbers. These laws (and the hardships that caused them) cropped up again and again every few decades throughout the late middle ages and the renaissance.
In general, if grain prices were high or the people starving, whatever central government there was would step in to take the reigns and make sure there isn't a big mob of drunken, starving paupers just waiting for someone to start a peasants' revolt.
Once a government has taken such powers for themselves, they don't tend give them up easily. So you end up in short order with any of a number of complications. Laws governing the use of hops vs gruit for flavoring the beer, laws about the sugar content being monitored by sticky-pants ale-conners, monopoly by royal decree over each various style of beer, introduction of a trade guild dedicated to beer brewing and sale, etc.
Large-scale commercial production and export of beer really got going in the 13th Century in Bohemia (and thereabouts) and was introduced to England by the 15th Century. Prior to that, most beer was produced in individual small-scale batches, and often in the home.
Game and Story Use
- A beer seller could be almost anywhere - and the street corner, ladle in a barrel kind might make a useful witness (or other source of information).
- Equally, it's good cover for someone needing to observe somewhere.
- As implied, in a village with no official alehouse, you may be taking your digestion in your hands.
- Possibly a good second job for someone - or a sideline for a housewife.
- Historically, quite a few of the "ale wives" in the beer selling business were likely to have been just that - or widows using their housekeeping skills to support themselves and their children.
- Poisoned or contaminated (or just incredibly bad quality) beer might lead to hilarity - especially if sold by some transient who has vanished by the time the source of the problem is traced.
- Or, if dumped as a bulk batch on the city's assorted vendors - investigating PCs should be able to trace the various leads back to the source, once they have filtered out the inevitably differences and contradictions.
- Perhaps some unsold material may be in a seller's lockup and need to be hunted down before they sell it inadvertently.
- Or a small time dealer gives advance warning of the problem (for those with their ears to the ground) - he sells the stuff straight away as he has nowhere to store it … somewhere there's a whole shipload of barrels just waiting to enter circulation to the whole city.
- Alternatively a stolen batch of beer might appear on the streets, perhaps sold at a disposal price to unknowing vendors.
- They dynamic between an ale-conner and the beer seller could factor into all sorts of plots. There's motivation a plenty for two such characters to either be conspiring together (to sell contaminated beer) or at each others throats (because of taxation, an impound, or corruption).