Pewter: Beer Metal of the Gods

My friend Ben Kessler recently took a trip to England and brought me back a box marked “Pewter.” Being a gracious and respectful recipient of gifts, I calmly tore off the lid and shredded the tissue paper. Inside was a shiny pewter tankard.

Drinking beer out of metal tastes amazing. The pewter kept the ale at optimal coolness for quite some time, but more importantly it made me feel like a freakin’ viking.* After each swig I wanted to slam the tankard down and belt out a Nordic drinking song.

Before I could descend too far into vikingry, though, one of Ben’s friends said something like, “Be careful or you’ll get pewter poisoning!” He was joking — I think — but it still made me pause, so after finishing the beer (I have my priorities), I Googled it. An important rule of the Internet, however, is that any search involving words like “safety” or “health” will always be more terrifying than helpful. In this case, Google whisked me off to a magical land of lead poisoning and heavy metal leaching.

Thankfully, the numbskulls on the first few websites were only partially correct. Some pewter, especially old pewter, contains lead. This includes goblets owned by kings of old, back when nothing said affluence like disorders of the nervous system. Any pewter made in the U.S. or Britain since the late 1700s, however, is lead free. But tin is a soft metal, so instead of using lead as a hardener, pewtersmiths started using antimony, a toxic compound that can cause health problems in those exposed to high enough levels of it. And it can theoretically leach into beverages, particularly acidic ones like beer.

The sorta good news is that we’ve all probably been exposed to low levels of antimony at some point — the stuff floats around in the air in many areas, kicked up by both natural and man-made boots — and, based on what I read online (take that with a grain of salt), it’s only really harmful in high doses and is much more likely to be excreted than lead. Plus, pewter only contains around 7% or less antimony (the remainder is mostly tin and a tiny amount of copper), so you can probably file it under “stuff that could kill me but probably won’t unless I use chunks of it as chew toys.”

Nonetheless, drink with caution. Although I found no information asserting that modern pewter is dangerous (and I was encouraged by comments and articles from long-term pewter users who’ve suffered no adverse health effects), safety should always come first, so I’ll be saving my tankard for special occasions. Because come on, look at it. I can’t not drink out of it altogether. It’s way too cool.

*I realize that many real vikings were not nice people. I’m talking about the pop-culture vikings from, say, How to Train Your Dragon and other silly movies. Horned helmets, beards, lots of mead and merriment, etc.

Comments
7 Responses to “Pewter: Beer Metal of the Gods”
  1. Ben says:

    Next time you stop by, you’ll have teach me some nordic drinking songs, and I don’t mean the type you’d song while using a cross country skiing machine with isokinetic resistance … Damn this antimony chew toy is good!

  2. Ryan says:

    If I drank out of one of those I’d picture myself in one of those buildings in the movie Beowulf, the animated one not the one with Christopher Lambert *shudders*, chanting drunkily

    • Scott says:

      You definitely would … but that’s the antimony talking.

      Seriously though, that Christopher Lambert movie was AWFUL. Can’t believe we sat through the whole damn thing.

  3. Fil says:

    I know a couple. I’ll teach ’em to you if you’re interested. . . for a price of course. Maybe a nice trippel . .

  4. Gareth says:

    Nice article, but I wouldn’t worry too much about antimony. It’s really only harmful in certain compounds and only then if you inhale it. Which you really shouldn’t do with your tankard anyway. Check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antimony#Precautions, and I also wrote an article about it on my website http://www.craftedcupcompany.com/about-pewter/

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