Archaeologists conducting excavations of 19th century Georgian and Victorian cellars in Leeds, England have discovered quite the potent little trove: More than 600 beer bottles that date back to roughly the 1880s, some of which still contain their liquid. The cache was discovered by an organization called Archaeological Services WYAS, which excitedly shared the news via Facebook, picking up interest from history buffs and alcohol geeks alike. The site where the bottles were discovered once housed a building called the Scarborough Castle Inn.
Researchers initially suspected the bottles contained some form of ginger beer, but laboratory testing instead revealed the contents to be beer. Most of these beers apparently had reserved alcohol content of around 3% ABV, which suggest they may have been precursors to the style we now know as English mild ale, or perhaps particularly sessionable ordinary bitter or pale ale. It’s difficult to know for sure, but legible markings on some of the bottles suggest a handful of breweries active during the era—most prominently “J.E. Richardson of Leeds.”
One might be tempted to give these ancient liquids a taste just out of morbid curiosity, but doing so would likely be hazardous to your health—not because of spoilage, but because of the presence of a dangerous level of lead, which was also discovered during testing. Researchers speculated that this lead may have entered the bottles via unfit lead piping leading to the brewery, although it’s also possible that it seeped into the liquid via its packaging over the last 130 years. Regardless, the .13 milligrams per liter of lead measured in the beer is many times more than the roughly .015 miligrams per liter that is considered safe by the Environmental Protection Agency. According to Smithsonian Magazine, “in this amount, the toxic metal may have caused the beer’s buyers to feel weak and sick, potentially causing irreversible damage to their internal organs.” Could it be that this is why the 600 bottles were abandoned in the first place?
Regardless, the discovery of the bottles offers a fascinating look back into both the romance and inherent danger of the alcohol industry in a time before the “modern” world had led to more stringent levels of quality control.