A Historical Look at the Beer Stein

beer steinDon’t confuse a beer mug with a beer stein. A mug is just a container with a handle used to hold your beer. A stein, on the other hand, originated in Germany and has a rich history. The German word “Steinzeugkrug” literally translated means “stoneware jug or tankard.” Travelers to Germany bring home souvenir beer steins, not beer mugs. Several stories exist as to why hinged lids were added to beer mugs turning them into steins.

Beer steins and the bubonic plague.

The most popular theory that has been continuously repeated and claimed as fact by many sources attributes the bubonic plague to the development of steins. In the mid-1300s, people were dying by the hundreds. It is estimated that between 30 and 60 percent of the European population died from the plague. As the story goes, authorities noted that uncleanliness seemed to contribute to the growth of the disease. They also noticed that little flies hovered over open food and drink containers.

In response, ordinances were enacted that required all food and drink containers to be covered. As a result, hinged lids were added to beer mugs and changed them into steins. The hinge could be flipped open with the thumb of the same hand that was holding the stein.

The hinged lid of beer steins was created so the beer would not spill out.

According to “Steve,” an expert on steins, the bubonic plague story doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. For one reason, he points out that steins have been found that can be dated back to the 10th century. After extensive historical research, he has found no evidence of any laws relevant to covering containers of food and beverages.

Steve says a more believable theory is that the lid was added to keep the beer from spilling out of the container. He documents the fact that most towns had a brewery. People walked to the brewery to fill their jugs and carry them home. It makes sense to believe that the steins were covered so that the beer would not spill out on the walk home.

Hinged lid may have been created to keep out other unwanted materials.

Steve also notes that beer was often drunk outside in beer gardens. It is likely that the hinged lid was added to the mug simply to protect the beer from the “deposits” of birds that were flying overhead,

Beer stein decorating.

Although the actual development of the stein lid is in question, one thing that is not in dispute is the creativity that developed in decorating both the stein and the hinged cover. It became a status symbol for everyone to have their own stein. Some steins were decorated with the family crest. Others depicted creative works such as a painting of a person’s hometown or town where the stein was made.

Paintings of historical events or religious scenes were also common. Around 1840, people started decorating the lids with intricate inlays or carvings and paintings. Some companies actually hired “classically trained artists” to paint and carve scenes on the steins.

Increased beer production increased the demand for steins.

After the plague, Germany found itself with surplus grain. This surplus grain was made into beer and breweries became the main source of employment for the population. Bavaria became the center of beer making. The enormous availability of beer of increased its consumption. Increase in beer consumption increased the need for steins. As the demand for steins increased, competition between stein manufacturers increased. This resulted in even more elaborate designs and decorations for beer steins.

Stein manufacturing today.

There are several companies in Germany manufacturing new steins calling them “limited editions” with new, more modern designs. Quality reproductions are also being made. As long as people continue producing and drinking beer and collecting steins, there will be reasons to continue manufacturing steins.