Photo by: Celia Esguerra
All across the world a very specific stereotype of Germans and Germany has developed. This stereotype most likely consists of a man wearing Lederhosen, an alpine hat; maybe he has a mustache or a potbelly, but he is definitely humorless and eating a huge pretzel or sausage with one hand, and drinking a strong beer from a gigantic stone mug(German beer stein) from the other. Basically, this guy.
But anyway, that’s just the stereotype. Most of these elements have been taken from Bavarian or south German culture (i.e.: lederhosen, alpine hats), some of them are just random (what do mustaches have to do with one country specifically?), but a couple of them might have a bit of truth behind them. There are bakeries with Brezel brot, or what us non-Germans would know as soft pretzels, on just about every corner of larger cities, walking sausage stands in front of every mall, and beer pretty much wherever you could want to find it (bless the Späti culture). But one thing that I’m honestly a little bit sad and disappointed for never seeing in Germany is German beer steins. I personally have lived in Germany for a year now, and I have yet to see something that I would put under the ‘German beer steins’ category in the wild. So this got me to thinking: Do people use them at all anymore? Where did these things even come from? Why do my German friends look at me like that when I use the word ‘stein?’ And, of course, germany-travel is all about answering these kinds of queries: this week we present to you a little trip into the truth behind German beer steins.
German Beer Steins: the English Language Strikes Again!
When I first was deciding to write this article, I was surprised by the reaction of my German colleagues and friends when I started talking about German beer steins: mild confusion and apathy. So it turns out, the English term ‘stein’ is basically gibberish in modern German. As beer stein can be simply shortened to ‘stein’ in English and still refer to the huge stone mug, it’s what is referred to as a neologism, or new meaning for a pre-existing word. In German, the word ‘stein’ means ‘stone’ with no reference to the large drinking vessel, so when an English speaker says they want to talk about ‘German beer steins’ the aforementioned confusion and apathy make a bit more sense.
Why German Beer Steins?
With this confusion out of the way, we can discover that this tradition of earthen or stoneware mugs makes perfect sense in the context of German and European history. Simply put, it was the best crafting medium available to the majority of Europe for a very long time. Glass and glass blowing was only really perfected and easy (or easier) to utilize beginning in the late 1800s with the technological advances brought about by the Industrial Revolution. Before this, ceramic, stoneware and porcelain were the best and cheapest ways to make dishes, cups and other house hold items. For example, the now famous glass beer steins seen at Oktoberfest celebrations across the globe were only introduced to the festival in Munich in 1892. Before this the festival used heavy plain stoneware mugs.
But what about the monstrous, heavily decorated German beer steins with the funny little lids, you might ask? Well, it’s a little story that involves the Black Plague (probably). Legend has it that in the 14th century when the Black Death was running rampant in Europe, the lid was devised for beer mugs to keep the fleas and flies that were crowding the city air at bay, in order to prevent infection or contamination of the brew. There is no proof for this tale, but the logic stands. With so much death in the streets of European cities and villages (more than 25 million people died in the span of a few years), and what with the sanitary standards of the 14th century being what they were (mainly, non-existent) it makes sense that hoards of flies and insects were swarming across the continent. It’s easy to imagine being a city dweller at that time, just trying to go about your daily life, trying to survive and getting more than a little bit annoyed with corpse flies landing in your beer. Though there is no real evidence to this Black Plague origin story, I’m more than happy to believe it.
Where Have All the German Beer Steins Gone??
Sure, they are readily available at memorabilia shops across the globe (fun fact: the world’s leading producer of ‘German’ beer steins is Brazil), but steins, especially the lidded versions, have fallen heavily out of fashion. They are still being produced, especially in the Westerwald region of south Germany that is famous for being the original producer of German beer steins, but mostly these heavy mugs have become another souvenir option for tourists. Especially because of the low cost and easy production of simple, lightweight beer glasses, German beer steins have somewhat gone the way of the dodo as far as everyday use is concerned.
I don’t know if it’s a symptom of my disappointment of never seeing them used in pubs here in Germany, but I think it’s a shame that German beer steins aren’t more popular. They’re a pretty interesting part of the European beer culture, especially if you know the reason that they gained such cultural recognition (and even their own word in English) over the years. Then again I can’t complain too much. At least German beer is still popular.