The Evolution of Drinking Vessels

All About Beer Magazine - Volume 32, Issue 5
November 1, 2011 By

A mug is more than just something to hold a cold brew. The iconic beer stein, for instance, was developed using one part industrial progress and one part public health emergency.

The stein, with its sturdy handle and hinged lid, was legislated into beer drinking history during the 14th century. As the bubonic plague wiped out entire villages and infestations of flies swept across parts of modern day Germany, rulers decreed that drinking vessels should be covered. At around the same time advancements were being made in ceramics and stoneware was developed. These two factors combined to create the classic beer stein.

When it comes to beer drinking vessels, man has been tinkering and innovating for centuries. Sometimes, like with the stein, necessity has been the mother of invention. In other cases, style and taste have shaped what holds our beer.

What is true today is that right glass with the right beer makes the experience memorable.

The delicate thin-walled 0.2 liter stange delivers a fresh kölsch to your lips at just the right temperature. The tulip-shaped imperial pint captures the flavor and aromas of an extra special bitter. And the 1-liter masskrug is as much a part of the enjoyment of Oktoberfest as drindls or leiderhosen. Anyone who has ever been to Cologne, London or Munich knows the sensory pleasure of holding one of these glasses. They can transport you back to the place because they are as much a part of the experience as any cathedral, palace or museum is in these great cities.

Most beer drinkers have a favorite glass. Many have a few glasses that they use regularly depending on the beer being poured. The search for the proper drinking vessel goes back through the ages—it’s part utilitarianism and part ceremony. The clinking of glasses signifies friendship and goodwill. Over time beer has served to drive away evil spirits, celebrate reunions and seal business deals. The beer mug is more than a container: it is part of the experience.

How we got to the modern beer glass is a story that reflects our development over the centuries. What now might look quaint, or even barbaric at times, was something our ancestors accepted as the perfect way to hoist a brew.

The wheel is often considered a defining moment in mankind’s development, but a display that recently was unveiled at the Natural History Museum in London shows that for ancient humans the cup was a major evolutionary milestone.

And it’s not just any cup. When ancient man needed a drinking vessel he could not just open his cupboard and pull out a pint night giveaway or the Oktoberfest masskrug that somehow found its way outside of the Theresienwiese festival grounds.

Skull Cups

An archaeological dig at Gough’s Cave in southwest England uncovered skull cups that are said to be 14,700 years old. They are considered the earliest known containers to be made from human skulls. The skulls show that Cro-Magnons were not only skilled hunter gatherers, but also made tools and often treated their dead in ways that would be a bit outside the range of acceptable behavior in today’s world.

“We suspected that these early humans were highly skilled at manipulating human bodies once they died, and our research reveals just what great anatomists they were,” says Dr. Silvia Bello, a paleontologist involved with the project. “The cut marks and dents show how the heads were scrupulously cleaned of any soft tissues shortly after death. The skulls were then modified by removing the bones of the face and the base of the skull. Finally, these cranial vaults were meticulously shaped into cups by retouching the broken edges possibly to make them more regular.”

The ancient inhabitants of the British Isles were not alone in using skulls as bowls and drinking vessels. In Mongolia in 177 B.C. the son of a Xiongnu chief killed the Yuezhi king and his skull was turned into a drinking cup. A number of early European tribal leaders were said to have skull cups made from the remains of enemy leaders. Krum of Bulgaria had the skull of Nicephorus I turned in to a jeweled cup after killing the Byzantine ruler in the battle of Pliska in the 700s. In 1510, Shah Ismail I killed Shaybanid Empire leader Muhammad Shaybani in battle in what is now Uzbekistan. He had the skull cap covered in gold and jewels and used it for toasting. After several important victories in the 1570s, Japanese Warlord Oda Nobunaga had several skull cups made for drinking sake. One of them was from his son’s head. In Tibet and India Buddhist and Hindu ceremonies include drinking from a skull cup called a kapala.

A Tibetan skull cup, made of silver "with human calvarium," would have been used in religious ceremonies, not for common imbibing.

Obviously, the idea of drinking from skull cups is did not come from just the lore of marauding Viking hordes. In fact, some research suggests the Vikings actually did not partake in this activity. Several Catholic saints “donated” their skulls for drinking vessels. Drinking from the chalices made from the skulls of Saint Theodulf, Saint Sebastian and Saint Ernhart was said to have a curative effect on the ill.

In the 19th century, English poet Lord Byron had a drinking vessel made from a skull his gardener had found while digging around his home at Newstead Abbey. Byron wrote, “There had been found by the gardener, in digging, a skull that had probably belonged to some jolly monk or friar of the Abbey, about the time it was demonasteried. Observing it to be of giant size, and in a perfect state of preservation, a strange fancy seized me of having it set and mounted as a drinking cup. I accordingly sent it to town, and it returned with a very high polish and of a mottled colour like tortoiseshell.” Byron was said to break out the skull to sip wine when guests came to the abbey.

Horns of Plenty

Burial rituals in many societies illustrate the importance of drinking vessels over the centuries. For instance, the burial site of a Saxon chieftain dating from the sixth century A.D. found in a churchyard in Taplow, Buckinghamshire, contained five cow horns and four glass cups. Mourners must have expected the chief would be doing quite a bit of partying in the afterlife. Drinking vessels from this find are on display at The British Museum in London.

Made from a horn of the extinct Auroch, this drinking horn graced a princely burial site in Taplow, England.

Cattle horns were prized drinking vessels across much of Europe and elsewhere for hundreds of years. Writings from the first century A.D. mention hunters in what is now Germany killing wild cattle and making drinking vessels from the horns. Many of these popular drinking vessels were adorned with silver rims and jewels at a time when metal drinking vessels also were available. Later German artisans created drinking horns made of glass.

Stone to Clay to Wood to Leather to Metal

The quest to quench a thirst has taken man in many directions to find the perfect drinking vessel. Early examples of stone and clay cups are on display in a number of museums around the globe. Later wood, bronze, silver, pewter, leather, porcelain and glass all came into use.

This evolution of the drinking vessel has its roots in a shift from the need for basic function and durability to the desire for aesthetic design and sensory pleasure. This shift mirrors mankind’s move from caves and huts to shelters that can approach mansion status.

For centuries most drinking vessels did not allow you to see the liquid, even though glass was widely available. While there were cost and durability factors involved, the plain truth is that most people did not want to see what they were drinking for fear of seeing sediment and floating debris.

Ancient Greeks had a number of specialized drinking vessels. Spartan soldiers were outfitted with a kothon, a goblet with an edge that would trap mud and other debris along its edge. Greeks often used footed bowls—the kantharos was a deep cup with handles that could be passed around a table.

This Greek kothon trapped debris in its ample edge.

Leather might not sound like something you would want to drink out of, but it was widely used to fashion tankards. Wood, which was either hollowed out or used to make staves to construct barrel-like mugs, was also a common material. These working-class drinking vessels could be carried from place to place without fear of being broken. Just like today, it was good to have a mug at the ready when a kegger broke out.

Metal tankards ranged from iron, tin and pewter to silver and gold. Your station in life and the ceremonial level of the drinking occasion determined the base metal. Some of the earliest metal drinking vessels were made of bronze and date back to the Zhou Dynasty in China. These were so much a part of everyday life that famous painters from Vincent Van Gogh to Pieter Bruegel used them as props in a number of masterpieces. A good example is “Malle Babbe” by Dutch artist Frans Hals (1580-1666), which hangs in the Gemaldegalerie in Berlin. It features an elderly woman with an owl on her shoulder and a metal lidded beer mug in her right hand.

Lifting the Lid on Steins

Even though steins got their start in the face of a pandemic, the durability and popularity of these drinking vessels are reflected in the extreme collectability and the high prices quality steins can command in antique shops, auctions and private sales. Steins are often more than just a covered drinking mug. They are true pieces of art. Themes range from castles and military to hunting and sports. A stein often says something about its owner and is one of the more personal drinking vessels ever created.

Andre Ammelounx runs the Stein Auction Co. with his partner Gary Kirsner. The company got its start in 1982 and holds auctions nine times a year. In its June sale one stein, a “Bearded Man” jug stein dating from 1574 made in Raeren outside of Cologne, sold for $8,625.

“The bulk of the steins we sell are from 1850 to 1910,” Ammelounx says. “From 1870 to 1910 there was a big production increase. Every young man after three years of service in the German military bought a regimental stein. The infantry steins are the most common, but there were steins for each branch of the service, including artillery and the navy. The airship and the motorized divisions are the rarest.”

Ammelounx says his favorite stein maker is Martin Pauson, a Munich company that went out of business during the 1930s. “They were a great designer of steins and their pewter work was high quality,” he says.

James Kaiser is a Michigan stein collector who focuses on steins from the 1700s through 1905. He has around 50 steins in his collection. For older high quality steins you can expect to pay in the $1,000 to $2000 range, sometimes higher.

“Once you hit the turn of the 20th century you start to get more into souvenir type steins,” Kaiser says. “I like earlier steins because each is a work of art and it is not a mass produced product.”

Kaiser says you should buy steins for “personal appreciation, not economic appreciation,” because while prices for many brewery collectibles have gone up in recent years, stein prices have remained fairly stable.

Wooden tankard found on board the 16th century carrack Mary Rose.

“I buy what I like,” Kaiser says. “I like steins because they reflect my German heritage and the historic interest of each piece. Just holding something from the 1700s is pretty special.”

Ammelounx offers three tips for people starting to collect beer steins: First, buy what you like. “Don’t buy it as an investment, buy it to enjoy it,” he says. Secondly, buy what you can afford, but look for quality. Like most collectables, age is only part of what determines price. Other factors, such as rarity, condition and subject matter play a big role. Lastly, “Know who you are buying from and understand what your return privileges are after the sale,” Ammelounx advises. In some cases with Internet sales even a well-intentioned seller might not know how to properly describe a stein or how to properly grade its condition.

Pint Sized Controversy

Evidence of earliest known glass production dates back to 3500 B.C. in Mesopotamia. For centuries the difficulty in producing glass and the fragility of product meant that only the wealthy and powerful had glassware. Things are different today, but glassware can still be a story of the haves and the have-nots.

While almost everyone will agree a cold beer in a glass on a hot day is a good thing, glassware is not without its own controversy. If you thought a pint was a pint, you would be wrong.

Liquid measurement tables clearly state a pint is 16 ounces. That should be the start and end of any discussion on the size of a pint. But that just is not the case.

Order a pint in most American bars and you will receive a 14-ounce “shaker” glass. Try all day and you could never get 16 ounces of liquid into a 14-ounce Shaker. In fact, leave room for the head on a beer in a 14-ounce Shaker and you end up with something around 13 ounces of brew or less.

Travel to England and a pint suddenly becomes 20 Imperial ounces (19.215 U.S. ounces). For many years, pubs were required by law to use glasses that were certified to hold a full pint. Each glass was stamped with a crown and a certification number. The European Union now requires that the words “PINT” and “CE” are marked on the glass. Certifying the true size of a pour is serious business in European countries. It is easy to see the full pour lines on one-third, half and liter glassware. There is always extra room provided for the fluffy head.

Few Americans appear to be disturbed about being cheated out of about 20 percent of the beer they pay for, which is odd since we would certainly not stand for the same treatment if the liquid involved was gasoline, olive oil, milk or even water.

In December 2007, Jeff Alworth in Portland, OR, established the Honest Pint Project. It was an attempt to start a beer consumer movement to push bars and restaurants selling pints of beer to actually serve pints measuring 16 ounces of liquid. While it is a noble cause, few taverns have picked up on the effort and started offering consumers an honest pint.

Greatness in a Glass

Controversy aside, there is a variety of different styles and sizes of beer glassware on the market and having the proper glass can add dramatically to your drinking experience. The 1-litre mug that revelers hoist at Munich’s annual Oktoberfest is called a masskrug. That is an apt sounding name for a drinking vessel that holds nearly the equivalent of half a six pack of beer. So popular and iconic are these drinking vessels that 130,000 were stolen from last year’s Oktoberfest. Beer boots and yards of ale pop up in some places as marketing gimmicks, but many better quality beer bars and brewpubs invest heavily in making sure customers get the right beer in the right glass.

“When we opened in June 1995, we were adamant that we would have the proper glassware for each beer from each brewery that supplied them,” says Keith Schlabs with the Flying Saucer Draught Emporium, a 14-location chain of beer bars. “Then customers started taking them.”

The Flying Saucer Draught Emporium “Brewery Night” glassware promotion was immediately born. Now for nearly 850 consecutive Wednesdays Flying Saucer patrons have been able to buy glassware from breweries big and small at cost, thus reducing the need for barroom larceny.

“Presentation is important, especially with delicate beers. Whether it’s Orval, Westmalle, Lindeman’s or Duvel, we like to present the beer in the way the brewer intended,” Schlabs says. “Served in its proper glass a beer’s flavor and aromatics are more pronounced.”

While some like to collect modern glassware, others focus on brewery antiques. Barb Bauer is a Mount Pleasant, MI, brewery glassware collector and antiques dealer. Her late husband Gary brought her into the hobby, because both enjoyed going to flea markets and started homebrewing about 13 years ago.

“I love the history of Michigan breweries. Sometimes a glass, a sheet of letterhead or an opener might be the only thing left from these breweries,” Bauer says.

Bauer focuses on glassware from before 1960 and says it can sometimes be “a little frustrating” trying to find pieces in good condition. Finding reasonably priced older brewery glassware at antique shops is “pretty rare,” but you can sometimes stumble across a piece at a garage sale or on eBay.

Her favorite glass in her collection is a circa 1893 acid-etched glass from the East Side Brewing Company in Detroit. The 4-inch tall glass has a gold rim and advertises East Side Select Beer, with an eagle flying with a hop cone in its beak.

“Glasses and drinkware is more sought after by collectors because they break,” Bauer says. “Trays didn’t break. Metal signs didn’t break. Openers didn’t break. Mugs and steins broke. They are just harder to find in good condition.”

Glass and Ceramics

Tom Rejmaniak, the former executive director of the National Brewery Museum in Potosi, Wisc., says that stoneware mugs and glassware were used by pre-Prohibition brewers as a former of advertising. The National Brewery Museum collection holds a number of logoed glasses from the late 1800s. Exhibits on loan often feature drinking vessels.

“Pre-Prohibition stoneware brewery mugs are pretty hard to find these days. We have more than a dozen on display from a number of breweries that no longer exist, like Blatz,” Rejmaniak says.

While modern day’s contribution to drinking vessel history the plastic cup will never be on display in a major museum, they do have their place at sporting events and poolside. As long as mankind has a thirst to quench, we will need drinking vessels.