Care for a little ginger beer with your lead?

This February, 600 Victorian stoneware beer bottles were found under an old cellar staircase in Leeds. They had been carefully stacked under the steps of what was once the Scarborough Castle Inn in the late 19th century. In 1931, the site of the former inn was acquired by the Tetley company and became part of Tetley’s Brewery, an Art Deco factory that is now being excavated in advance of for redevelopment.

The excavation is being undertaken to examine an area spanning the former line of Hunslet Lane on the southern approach to during the medieval and later periods.

Along with the road, there are the remains of the Scarborough Castle Inn, properties along the former South Terrace and workers housing have been targeted for excavation.

This excavation is providing archaeologists with a rare chance to explore the social development of this part of Leeds from the late medieval period through to modern day.

David Williams, at Archaeological Services WYAS, said: “This excavation is giving us a great opportunity to uncover a part of Georgian and Victorian Leeds. The results so far are giving a real insight to the daily lives of the former residents of Leeds during this period.”

Rather perilous daily lives, as it turns out. The bottles appeared to be were mostly ginger beer. Labels indicated most of the bottles were produced by J. E. Richardson of Leeds, although several different local breweries were represented.

NB: The original ginger beer made in England in the mid-18th century, it was not the sweet carbonated soft drink it is today. It was a fermented beverage with the punch of beer but the taste of ginger. Water, ginger, sugar and a combination yeast and bacteria starter culture known as the ginger beer plant (GBP), were fermented to create a bubbly, spicy alcoholic drink. Ginger beer could pack a goodly wallop getting up to 11% alcohol.

Stoneware bottles like the ones in the Leeds find were key to the success of ginger beer as a popular and commercially viable export product. England produced stoneware bottles of such high quality that they could be shipped without catastrophic breakage. Ginger beer got even more popular after 1835 when an improved stoneware glazing process was invented. The bottles, corked and wired like champagne today, lasted indefinitely, the beer inside preserved by the alcohol and natural carbonation.

Some of the Leeds bottles had their corks intact and liquid still sloshing around inside. Two of the bottles that contained liquid were sent to West Yorkshire Joint Services for testing.  The results were surprising.  The alcohol content was a modest 3%. The lead content was an impressive .13 mg/l, making this weak beer but strong poison. According to the World Health Organization, the safeish lead concentration in water is .01 mg/l (it’s zero for children), but really there is no safety to be found in lead ingestion because it accumulates in the body over time and irreversibly damages the nervous system.

The likely source of the contaminated ginger beer was lead water pipes. The water was contaminated before it even made contact with the other ingredients that would make it ginger beer, so the high lead level was present in the drink from day one.

10 thoughts on “Care for a little ginger beer with your lead?

  1. Is that original ‘non-softdrink’ stuff still available in its fresher form , i.e. also w/o the ‘Scarborough Share’ of lead? :confused:

    “Brewed ginger beer originated in the UK, but is sold worldwide. Crabbie’s is a popular brand in the UK. It is usually labelled ‘alcoholic ginger beer’ to distinguish it from the more established commercial ginger beers, which are not brewed (fermented), but carbonated with pressurized carbon dioxide. [..] Until about 2008 laboratory-grade ‘Ginger beer plant’ was available only from the yeast bank ‘Deutsche Sammlung von Mikroorganismen und Zellkulturen’ in Germany (catalogue number DMS 2484), but the item is no longer listed.”

  2. Six hundred ginger beer bottles, lying by the wall,
    Six hundred ginger beer bottles, lying by the wall,
    And if one ginger beer bottle should accidentally fall,
    There’ll be five hundred and ninety-nine ginger beer bottles lying by the wall.

  3. The lead came from the glazing on the inside of the bottle, years of acidic leaching upped the basic concentration. Even a properly fired glaze, being exposed to a corrosive liquid over a couple hundred years, will give up its lead .

  4. I like Crabbies Ginger Beer. I think with the corona lockdown, Trevor has too much time on his hands. Or too much lead levels!!
    I also like Corona, but only the beer.

  5. That was the first thing that came to mind. Is there actually lead glaze on the inside of the bottles? Given lead pipes providing the water source, and a couple of hundred years of sitting around leaching into the ginger beer, that would produce a nasty concentration of lead.

  6. There are recipes online to make your own with ordinary yeast. The longer it ferments, the better it gets! :hattip:

  7. All the late ginger beer bottles I have seen are glazed with a slip glaze called Bristol Glaze (as stated invented in 1835 in Bristol) inside and out. There was no need to use lead and in fact it was well known by that time of the problems with lead. Some say Bristol glaze was invented to replace lead. I always thought this was unlikely since most stoneware was saltglazed to make it impervious to almost all leaching. However, there is always a problem with getting salt inside a vessel with a narrow top and perhaps if earlier bottlers using stoneware wanted to be sure the beer would not penetrate the walls, they could have used a lead glaze. If that is the case, then the invention of Bristol glaze to replace lead would be true. Until the other day I had never seen a reported use of lead glaze inside a ginger beer bottle, but did see one in an Australian report. If an accurate identification, perhaps the British sent such bottles to Australia in an early for of dumping hazardous material on colonies or third world (at that time) countries.

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