When the Vessel Outshines the Beer

All About Beer Magazine - Volume 21, Issue 3
July 1, 2000 By

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.

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.

Custom Steins

During the late 1800s, beer steins achieved a unique place in German culture that they retain to this day. Steins were easily customized, whether by painting on the body or engraving on the lid, and they became the prized memento for personal occasions, such as birthdays, weddings or retirement. Beer steins were used as souvenirs of membership in a group, as prizes for athletic or shooting events, and as a means to pay honor to a person’s occupational skills.

Regimental steins, purchased as a remembrance by military personnel when they left active service, were personalized with the owner’s name, dates of service, unit designation, the names of the others in the company, and even decorative scenes that were chosen to portray some of the reservist’s duties or experiences. Student societies also used elaborately decorated beer steins to strengthen the bonds of friendship. The gift of a personalized stein was an expression of honor, love, respect, loyalty⎯and it was a cherished possession.

The “character stein” deserves special note because it is so distinctive. The term applies to a stein formed in the shape of the thing it represents. The Anheuser-Busch Bud Man steins are a well-known contemporary example, although hundreds of different character steins have been produced, some as long ago as the mid-1700s. Popular designs include barrels, historic towers, the Munich Child, radishes, skulls, both famous and ordinary people, dogs, cats, pigs, goats⎯the variety is limited only by the imagination. These steins are highly sought after by collectors, and at least one collection consists of over 1,000 examples!

Collectible Steins

Many ceramic firms produced steins in Germany during the golden age of steins (roughly 1870 to 1920). The best known and perhaps most popular was the factory of Villeroy and Boch in the village of Mettlach. Known to collectors simply as Mettlach, their steins are generally felt to be among the most artistic and of the best quality. (Of course, this view is not universally accepted, just as Hummel figurines and Cadillac automobiles have their critics.) Mettlach steins are very well marked and catalogued (especially in comparison to most other factories where few records survive), and they are highly sought today.

Stein production in Germany was dramatically reduced in the early part of the 20th century as a result of political and economic conditions. This situation lasted until after World War II. As production began to rebuild, steins having relief designs grew in favor. These steins could be molded and painted inexpensively, and huge quantities were produced as souvenirs.

More recently, steins have been designed and produced specifically for their appeal as collectables. Limited editions, annuals, and trademarked series have been produced using many of the same techniques that were used 100 years ago or more. The Gerz Limität series was faithful to the designs of early Westerwald steins. The Schultz and Dooley series reintroduced character steins in 1959. And the Anheuser-Busch mugs and steins have had a tremendous impact on collecting.

During this same period we have witnessed the rise of new centers of production in Brazil and elsewhere, while stein production in Germany has declined, this time as a result of a strong economy with its resultant high cost of labor.

While most beer stein collectors start out by buying what they come across and like, most recognize the impossibility of “having it all,” and so decide to narrow their collecting efforts. In addition to being easier on the pocket book and the space requirements, this also allows the collector to develop a specialist’s knowledge of a narrower field. Even so, collectors are faced with myriad choices, and few can limit themselves to just one area of collecting.

The following shows some of the possibilities for focusing a collection:

  • Age (e.g., pre-1800, World War II, modern collectibles)
  • Material (e.g., glass, metal, faience, natural)
  • Factory (e.g., Mettlach, Diesinger, Girmscheid, Ceramarte)
  • Type (e.g., brewery, character, occupational, regimental)
  • Decorative technique (e.g., etched, transfer, handpainted)
  • Theme (e.g., Budweiser, the Munich Child, athletic, animals)
  • Size (e.g., over 12 inches, less than 1/4 liter)
  • Artist (e.g., Schlitt, Beuler, Hohlwein)
  • Or a combination of factors (e.g., transfer-decorated Mettlach drinking scenes)

Many fine collections have been formed along the lines suggested above. There are even impressive collections of just inlaid lids that have been separated from their steins!

Not Made for Drinking

I’m frequently asked if my steins, particularly some of the larger ones, were meant to be used for drinking. We don’t know precisely where to draw the line, but it’s clear that many of them were intended only for display and commemoration. One liter of beer weighs about 2 pounds. Joseph Bachmair’s 2-liter birthday stein weighs almost 4 pounds empty; filled, it would weigh almost 8 pounds. A 7-liter Mettlach stein will approach 30 pounds when filled with beer.

While the adventuresome might risk a drink or two from a stein of this size, the novelty (and the arm) would tire quickly!

Whether you prefer older steins or newer, limited editions or tourist pieces, brewery stein or characters, glass, metal or ceramic, there’s a place in stein collecting for every taste. And while they will serve up a great beer, they do need to be refilled from time to time!