Pewter Tankards have been around for a very long time and were the most common cup used for beer in much of the world until technological changes heralded cheap glass. Sure, glass has a few advantages, such as being able to admire the clarity and colour of your brew. But just like those who grieved the loss of tankards from pubs around the world, we think the beauty and sheer fun of a tankard should give it a place in any beer lover’s drink-ware collection.
Tankards have been made, from many materials like wood, stainless steel, glass, ceramics and even horn or leather. However, when we think of the word ‘tankard’, we usually think about pewter.
What is the history of Pewter?
Pewter is a glossy metal alloy consisting mainly of tin. It’s been in use for tableware since at least the Roman period, and it was to get access to the rich tin mines of southern England that caused the Romans to invade Britain in the first century AD. Tin is still a very sought-after metal and is now the fourth most valuable metal in common use after platinum, gold, and silver.
Pewter was the ‘poor man’s silver’, as it was relatively available and could be used for many of the same purposes as Silver. In fact, many of the pewter tankard designs we recognize today were originally copies of silver tankards in use by the aristocracy. Less scrupulous merchants even sold pewter as silver, to the unwary! Not that that’s entirely fair to pewter, which has a lot of advantages over silver, unless you enjoy polishing (see below).
Tin is a tough metal to work with as it’ll easily collapse at high temperatures, so it is mixed with other metals such as antimony and copper to provide rigidity. Historically, lead was used, but this is no longer the case because of the obvious and very real safety concerns. Be very careful of drinking from antique pewter of any kind… tankards are great, but lead poisoning is not. Modern pewter is safe to drink from and really livens up a cold beer on a hot day
How are pewter tankards made?
There are three main methods of making a pewter tankard, all of which have been in use for many centuries:
Casting: This method involves pouring molten pewter into a mould. The metal quickly cools and the mould can be removed. This method uses the most metal, and as a result produces a heavier tankard. Unfortunately, it’s also a more expensive tankard for the same reason (remember what we said about it being the fourth most expensive metal?). There are also some limits on the design of a cast tankard, although in most cases this restriction isn’t a big problem.
Sheet-working: This involved carefully cutting sheets of cool pewter into shape before bending around a mould, or ‘former’. The join is hammered shut, sometimes with additional molten pewter, and then polished until the join is not only invisible but is no longer physically present. This method uses the least pewter and is therefore more common for less expensive cups, but is still a very good option. Few people can tell the difference. The top is worked by the craftsman to give a thick and comfortable rim, and the tankard is quite solid enough for most people. Several tankards of this type were recently dug out of the mud of the River Thames that is several hundred years old.
Spinning: This very traditional method is undoubtedly the most fun to watch and produces the finest tankards. They put a thick pewter disc on a lathe, and as the lathe turns the disc a highly-skilled craftsman uses a range of much-specialised hand-tools to push the tankard into shape. This method produces solid tankards with elegant designs, and, depending on the design, can lead to tankards where the bowl is a single piece of pewter. This makes cleaning even easier! These methods are often labour intensive and need very skilled craftsmen, although some far-eastern pewter utilises casting on more of an industrial scale.
How should I maintain my pewter tankard?
Unlike silver, modern lead-free pewter will not tarnish or go dull over time if left unattended. It needs very little care to last a very long time. After use just hand-wash with your usual dish detergent… that’s all! However, remember to use a soft cloth and a soft towel afterwards, as anything abrasive can scuff pewter. This is also why pewter should not go in the dishwasher.
If your tankard is scratched or looks bad, you can easily regain your sparkle with a little polish. Soap and water will do just fine. Pewter tankards are an excellent addition to any collection, and a sound investment to pass to your grandkids.
To buy Pewter Tankards, why not check out our selection at Pewter World? We make our tankards from lead-free pewter using techniques that go back centuries. https://www.pewterworld.co.uk/tankards