Have you ever looked closely at the glass that holds your beer? Some are anonymous and mass produced, mere containers. Others are personal, one man’s own tankard kept at his local, filled and drained each evening for years. Still others are designed by the brewery to enhance the characteristics of a particular beer style. Then there are vessels in a league all their own, full or empty. Over five centuries, beer steins have evolved into specialized works of art that are as likely to be found in a museum as on a bartop.
During the late 1800s, beer steins achieved a unique place in German culture that they retain to this day.
When we use the term “stein,” we normally think of a vessel with a handle and a hinged lid made for drinking beer.
While glasses and cups of various materials and forms date back to ancient times, those with a lid came into prominent use in the Middle Ages, following the devastation wrought across Europe in the 14th century by the bubonic plague. In parts of Germany, laws began to appear requiring covers for containers of food and drink, in order to reduce the spread of disease by hordes of flies. Although, thankfully, that threat has long passed, beer steins retain their characteristic lids. And, until recent times, the covered beer stein has been primarily a product of Germany.
Steins for the Masses
A wide variety of materials have been employed for drinking and storing liquids. Glass has been used for thousands of years. Fine beakers and chalices have been made from silver and gold, sometimes encrusted with precious gems. Elaborate vessels have been carved from ivory. Fine porcelain was imported from China for centuries before Europeans discovered how to make it.
All of these vessels were uniquely suited for ostentatious display by the wealthy, but impractical and unaffordable for the middle and lower classes. In the 16th and 17th centuries, their needs were satisfied by stoneware, most of which was produced in the Westerwald region. Jugs, pitchers and steins were formed from clay, fired in a wood-burning kiln, and glazed on the surface. The result was an object perfectly suited to hold fluids and to withstand hard everyday use.
Early stoneware steins were decorated with incised or applied designs, and although some were a monotone brown or gray, many were decorated using cobalt (blue) and manganese (purple) glazes. They were all thrown on a potter’s wheel and finished totally by hand before being fired in a kiln. Pewter, although it was expensive, became the most common material for fashioning the stein’s hinged lid and thumb lift.
Europeans admired⎯and imported⎯Chinese porcelain as long ago as the late 8th or early 9th century. The fine white ground provided by porcelain was perfectly suited for highly detailed painting, something that could not be achieved on stoneware. Frustrated in their attempts to discover the formula for making porcelain, Europeans turned to faience, an earthenware material that was covered in a heavy, white tin-glaze, giving the superficial appearance of porcelain. Although faience was more fragile than stoneware, it provided a wonderful “canvas” for decorating. After Europeans succeeded at making porcelain in 1709, its hardness combined with its ideal surface for decorating soon spelled the demise of the faience industry
The Golden Age
The Golden Age of beer steins arrived in the second half of the 19th century with the widespread use of molds for forming clay bodies. Relief work, which had previously been applied or carved by hand, was especially well suited to molds. The use of transfer-printed designs, a technique developed by the English, was also an important advance in mass production. While the skills and creativity of the individual potter became less important, the new factories were able to produce steins in an exceptional variety of shapes, decorations and colors, not to mention in greatly expanded quantities.
Molding techniques were also extended to glass, and pressed glass made its introduction in the mid-1800s. Glass, too, offered exceptional decorating possibilities, including etching, enameling, coloration in the glass itself, the application of glass rosettes and ribbons, transfer decorations, and various combinations of these techniques. Over the latter part of the century, glass experienced a surge of popularity, and many fine glass steins are found today.