By Aaron Ramson

  • While even the ancient Egyptians had drinking vessels made from glass, beer mugs were historically made from earthenware and stoneware, presumably because they were more easily replaced when inevitably dropped and broken during drunken celebrations. Germans called their stoneware jugs Steinzeugkrug, which has been shortened to the word stein.
  • The difference between beer mugs and beer steins is very simple. While both have handles, steins have hinged lids, while mugs don’t.
  • Steins have lids because of the Black Death. From about 1340 until 1380, the bubonic plague, or Black Death, killed more than 25 million people across Europe. Piles of dead and decomposing bodies brought biblical hordes of flies. Flies had a nasty habit of sitting on bacteria-filled matter like excrement and bloated corpses before landing in people’s food, spreading sickness and death. Officials noted that unsanitary conditions led to greater infection rates, leading to the creation of better sanitation measures across the land. By the early 1500’s, Germany enforced strict sanitation laws requiring that all food and beverage containers be covered to protect consumers against flies and other vermin. The common mug also had to be covered, and this was accomplished by adding a hinged lid with a thumb lift. This ingenious invention was soon used to cover all German beverage containers while still allowing them to be used with one hand.
  • Steins and tankards are not the same thing, despite the terms being used interchangeably by casual beer drinkers. While they both have handles and feature hinged lids, there are some major distinctions between the two. Beer steins are ceramic, hold either a liter or ½ liter of beer, and are usually elaborately decorated. The word “tankard” means a metal tube. Because they’re made from pewter or steel, tankards are almost never decorated, but they can feature a glass bottom. Steins are German, while tankards are English in origin.
  • Covered lids were only one of the things the German government mandated to help prevent the return of the black death. Many unscrupulous beer makers were known to use anything from moldy bread to rotting vegetables to make ale with, which was a real no-no to the folks who were still traumatized by the piles of corpses and hordes of flies that come with plague. The German purity law of 1516, or Reinheitsgebot, decreed that only water, barley, hops (and yeast) was going into beer steins anymore.
  • Before the late middle-ages (1250-1500 AD), German beer mugs were made of wood or earthenware. Earthenware is porous clay, fired at lower temperatures. With the innovation of high temperature kilns, clay could be fired until its consistency changed and became non-porous. This type of material is known as stoneware, and it was perfect for creating beer mugs. It wasn’t brittle like clay, or porous and absorbent like wood. While only the wealthy could afford mugs made from pewter or silver, stoneware mugs were universally seen as the most practical option for most people to own.
  • Beer steins were a status symbol. Steins were usually decorated with biblical scenes or historical allegories, but soon tradespeople and successful farm owners began asking for custom designs that displayed their personal lives. After the black death passed, those who survived found themselves living in a time of tremendous improvement. With a smaller population at hand, there was a surplus of food and supplies. Laborers who were previously poor were now in a position to demand more wages for their work, and could now treat themselves to modest luxuries.
  • The world’s largest beer stein can hold more than 30 liters of beer, stands at more than 4 feet in height and weighs more than 35 pounds. It goes without saying that this stein is made for decorative purposes only, as it would be a challenge to drink from.
  • Das Boot! The glass boot is NOT a German invention, and it is definitely not a stein. Its origins can be traced to England, where it was a celebratory glass boot used by hunters to celebrate. It has been adopted by Germany, who named it the bierstiefel. They do not call it Das Boot, that came from the movie “Beer Fest”.
  • The U.S. is the biggest market for modern German stein makers, especially limited editions. American stein collectors are usually older, are financially stable, and enjoy the nostalgia that a beautifully crafted stein gives them.
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