From Public Health Necessity to Collectibility: The History of the Beer Stein

This beautifully decorated faience stein was manufactured by the Proskau factory in the late 1700s. This factory was located in Northern Germany and was in existence from 1760 to about 1790. When it was made, neither the manufacturer nor the owner gave a thought about its collectibility.

When the first beer steins were being produced, their future collectibility likely wasn’t being considered by those who produced them. It took roughly 400 years after the first steins were produced before stein collecting began to take off.

The earliest steins can date back to the Late Middle Ages, more specifically the 1500s. The word stein, is short for the German word Steinzeugkrug, which translates to “stoneware jug.” A common mistake is to call a mug a stein, or a stein a mug. The definition of a stein is a handled drinking vessel that features a lid (or at some point had a lid), whereas a mug is classified as having a handle but never of having a lid.

Steins were invented due to new sanitary health laws that were enacted after the onset of the Bubonic Plague, or the Black Death, as it was known, in Europe in 1347. Over the next five years, it ended up killing over an estimated 20 million people, a third of Europe’s population. During the late 1400s, Central Europe was invaded by swarms of tiny flies during the summer months. To protect the public from these pesky insects, lawmakers enacted some new health regulations. These laws were a necessity to help improve health conditions and in an effort to prevent the Black Plague from returning. During the 1500s, German legislators instituted a law that required food and beverages to be covered to protect their contents. Pottery makers added a hinged top, along with a thumblift, to the common mug and thus the stein was born.

Around this time period, certain other German lawmakers introduced other additional laws regarding public health. The brewing and transporting of beer began to become regulated, thus improving the quality and taste of the beer. Specifically, laws were introduced that required that beer only be brewed from hops, cereals, yeast and water. During this time period, consumption of beer began to increase, likely due to the improved quality. New beer halls and taverns began to pop up over Germany. Due to this additional increase in beer drinking, the beer stein began to rise in popularity and use.

An example of a stoneware stein from the late 1790s, produced in Westerwald, Germany.

With the high demand for steins, pottery artists began to decorate their creations with carved and applied designs, along with colored glazes. Among other things, they’d create steins that were decorated with coats of arms and Biblical, mythological and historical scenes.

The very first steins were being made of earthenware, a type of pottery that has a porous, opaque look and a rich clay color. Earthenware was typically brittle and did not hold up very well. Potters realized a need for higher-quality pottery and began making steins out of stoneware, which was a superior substance, but was more time-consuming and costly to produce. Creating stoneware also required higher temperature furnaces, which were yet to be perfected. Experiments were conducted and eventually new furnaces that could reach temperatures of up to 2200 degree Fahrenheit—much higher than the 900 degrees that earthenware required—were produced. These higher-temperatures ovens allowed the clay to vitrify or partially melt into a very hard stone-like substance, hence the name stoneware.

Double photo

Other steins were being made of high-quality porcelain imported from China, made for the German elite. However, conflicts in China during the 1600s put a pause on the exporting of porcelain in general and porcelain steins in particular. The process of creating porcelain was not yet known to German potters, however they invented their own substitute, known as faience. Faience was merely earthenware but utilized a white porcelain-like glaze that was made from tin oxide. By the time the Chinese restarted exporting porcelain to Germany, faience was already well established and had carved out its own place in the market.

The process of making true porcelain was eventually discovered in Germany in 1709. However, it didn’t impact stein making until around the 1720s. These new porcelain steins were still a luxury, left only for the rich. The porcelain steins accompanied the category of other high-priced steins, such as those being made of glass and silver.

A faience stein and its lid, engraved with the date 1761. It was manufactured in Berlin, northern Germany.

It wasn’t until the 1800s that the covered-container law was no longer being enforced. However, regardless of having laws that required lids or not, steins were here to stay. At this point, the stein was a part of everyday German life and it wasn’t going anywhere.

During this time period, the most important marketplace for steins was the middle class. Wars, such as the Napoleonic and others, led to diminishing wealth surrounding the German aristocracy. Although, more expensive porcelain and silver steins were still being made during this time period, folk art glass and pewter steins appealed to the middle class. Nearly all faience stein producers were shut down and stoneware manufacturers stopped production of steins in favor of more desirable goods.

During the second half of the 1800s, the process for making glassware steins had improved to the point where they could be mass produced with molds. This brought the cost to the consumer down and allowed the middle class to finally enjoy glass steins. Glassmakers utilized several new tricks to create fancier and more desirable steins, such as using pewter overlays, acid etching, multicolored glass overlays, and other techniques created impressive works of art. These new techniques, along with the lower cost, led to the increased popularity of glassware steins. Another theory in their rise in popularity was that patrons took pride in showing off the high quality beer that the glass steins housed.

Three examples of glass steins: A beautiful example of a quarter-liter lady’s glass stein that was made in the 1890s (left). It features a twisted blue glass handle and applied blue glass prunts to the body; a half-liter glass stein from the late 1800s (center) that features an inlaid lid of a cavalier made of Parian ware, unfired bisque porcelain; and a quarter-liter ruby flashed glass stein from the 1890s (right).

Advancements also took place in other areas of pottery making. New techniques were developed in creating the porcelain molds, which allowed for novel shapes to be created. This led to higher quality porcelain character steins, which caused a rise in their popularity. Manufacturers such as Ernst Bohne & Sohne and Schierholz began creating such stunning examples. These new techniques also allowed manufacturers to incorporate images in the bottom of their steins, known as lithophanes.

Other manufacturers, like Villeroy & Boch were introducing brightly colored, etched and mosaic steins, which were being produced at their Mettlach, Germany factory. A week’s pay was happily handed out to receive one of these high-quality steins from one of Mettlach’s classically trained artists. Artists such as Heinrich Schlitt would design humorous scenes of gnomes and drinkers that today are very desirable amongst collectors.

A stunning and rare porcelain character stein from manufacturer Ernst Bohne & Sohne. This one known as “Hissing Cat on Book.”

The collecting of steins really started to appear around the turn of the 20th century. High quality reproductions of much older steins began to pop up from some of the major stein manufacturers, including ones from the Mettlach factory. Again, a new influx of reproductions popped up in the 1920s. None of these examples, however, were created in an attempt to deceive buyers, as they were clearly marked as such. They were introduced more as homage to the old manufacturers. It wasn’t until much later, in the 1970s and ’80s, when steins started achieving values worthy of deceitful fakes.

It was also around this time that stein collecting hobby really began to take off. Stein collecting groups such as the Stein Collectors International (SCI) popped up as well as some stein only auction houses. SCI, which was founded in 1965, introduced a stein collecting quarterly, known as Prosit!, that helped educate and inform new buyers. Yearly stein conventions started being held and continue to be held yearly to this day. The collecting of steins began to get organized, which led to collectability standards and prices began to increase.

Today, steins are still being produced well throughout the modern era. Companies such as Ceremarte of Brazil is one of the largest manufacturers of steins. The producer has created steins for companies like Budweiser. German manufacturers still exist as well, creating mostly steins for tourists attending Oktoberfest or limited edition collectable steins.

Beer steins have come a long way since their invent in the 1500s due to health necessities. The processes used to create them have advanced, as well as their artistic qualities. No longer are steins simply a vessel to house beer and drink. They have become superior works of art from. Today, beer steins adorn collector’s homes and bars and will likely continue to be collected well into the future.

Joe Christensen owns and runs Grand Antiques, an antique stein business. He is a power and top-rated seller on eBay. He not only sells steins, but is also a second generation collector. Joe developed a love of collecting steins from his father, Bill, who has been collecting them for more than 35 years and has an impressive collection of regimental steins. Joe is also an active member of Stein Collectors International.

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