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What are Beer Steins?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 15 November 2016
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A beer stein is a lidded mug that holds beer. The handle of the mug features a tiny hinge, which when pressed with the thumb, opens the lid. This allows the user of the beer stein to open the lid with the same hand holding the mug, but to close it when he is not drinking. The modern beer stein can be made in numerous different materials like metals, ceramic or glass. The beer stein may also have numerous carvings, and many collect German beer steins since the designs can exhibit interesting variance.

Initially the beer stein was produced for sanitary purposes. In the 1400s, parts of Germany were plagued with flies that would drop into an open beer and drown quite easily. Since no one particularly wanted to drink beer with this unintended additional ingredient, craftsman sought to design a cup that would only be open when the drinker was using it.

There also existed fear that the bubonic plague would return and begin another path of destruction throughout Europe. This made local officials and leaders in Germany eager to pass laws that would keep people safe. As a result, many areas of Germany actually passed laws demanding that individual and shared beer glasses had to feature a lid.

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In the 1500s, many times a tankard of ale was merely shared, and these shared beer steins were usually made of wood or earthenware, which tended to rot or break after multiple uses. These materials also reeked of stale beer. A few people owned ceramic beer steins, but these were expensive. You were actually considered wealthy if you owned your own beer stein. Fortunately, the 16th century brought working in pewter to the fore, resulting in most beer steins of the time being made in pewter.

As new materials emerged, beer steins became more and more elaborate. They might have carvings, designs, and etchings. Favored styles were ceramic with blue glaze, and many had reliefs or carvings of drinking scenes or more modern events. The beer stein essentially became art, and many became collectibles. Today, most collectors of beer steins are Americans, and as with many things in demand, the beer stein is not only made in Germany. Some variants are made in factories in South America, reflecting the global trends of outsourcing.

You can buy a beer stein in many different styles. Some feature Christmas scenes, depict cities, reference a particular war, or can be engraved or personalized for the user. Many are very modern. Collectible beer steins can be found in antique stores, and on eBay. It may be a little challenging to know the difference between an original and a reproduction, since many reproductions were made as the popularity of beer steins grew in the 1960s. It’s best to work with a reputable antiques dealer if you’re looking for a rare, early beer stein.

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