The common material for making beer mugs before 1892 was stone, or stoneware. The 1892 Oktoberfest brought the introduction of the beer glass or the beer mug made of glass. Even though, the name Stein, the German abbreviation for stoneware, has been thought of to mean generally any robust vessel beer enthusiasts use to drink beer.
The unique history of the Stein begins with the lid, and it is in fact what actually differentiates the beer steins from the beer mug and any other beer drinking vessel for that matter. The beer mug doesn't have a lid. The Stein does, and it is commonly attributed to keeping the flies out of the mug, thus keeping them out of your beer. Only there is a deeper history than that because the actual flies that prompted the addition of the lid were bringing death, thus the lid was added because of a series of German laws put into place for public hygiene purposes.
The Black Death was a bubonic plague that originated around China and eventually spread to Western Europe in the fourteenth century. It has been said that the Black Death was carried by fleas on rats through the various trade routes famously known as the Silk Road, land and sea routes that connected merchants in the Asian and African countries to merchants in European countries. The Black Death resulted in thousands of people dying a day and to fend off as much death as possible, laws were put in place.
Invasions of small flies sweeping through Central Europe caused fear of the Black Death and successive possibilities of plagues due to the fact that flies can carry disease every bit as good as fleas can. Therefore, German laws called for covering food and beverages to protect consumers of restaurants and pubs. Thus, brings us back to the origin of the Stein.
But, Steins weren't just covered. They were covered in style! A Stein has a hinged lid with a thumb handle for ease of drinking. In one swift move, a beer enthusiast can lift the Stein, pop the lid off and take a drink. Who would want the hassle of having to do that in several steps?
Different materials for making Steins in the early days include pewter or silver for the rich, and wood was used among the poor. But, wood is very porous. Beer would soak into the wood and be very hard to clean. Can you imagine what skunk beer, days to even weeks old caught in the pores of wood smells like? Here's a hint. You don't want to know.
Therefore in the experimentation stages trying to find the materials that would make a cheap Stein the poor could afford, a new firing chamber was designed so that heat could get to higher temperatures. Additionally, clay is a very cheap material that can easily be found in the ground, thus the name earthenware often used for pottery of various sorts. Creating a furnace made completely of brick allowed for the perfect environment to raise temperatures high enough not only to completely dry the clay, but also melting it to stone-like. Much harder to break, it's often referred to as stoneware.
A simple Stein is basically a ceramic mug with a pewter lid hinged at the top. But, the science of creating Steins has developed since the 1500s to include an artistic appeal that often alludes to German legends. Raised-relief decorating brings the art to life in three-dimension that is raised from the surface of the Stein. However, etched decorations and decals can often be used as well. In fact, modern technology has allowed us to make decals that can easily be transferred to the Stein with ease and permanence.
Even though German legends have traditionally been the focus of Stein art, any parable can become the subject of a Stein from Biblical to political, mythological to historical. Today, a Stein can have the subject of last year's Superbowl or yesterday's NASCAR race, biking, Christmas, eagles and lighthouses. There is no subject not worthy of German beer steins artistry.
Beer glasses, bottles and cans have become the more popular drinking vessel of the beer enthusiast. That's because it's easy. That's the way most beers come. But, the Beer Stein will always make for an awesome beer enthusiast collection. As long as we have beer enthusiasts who like to collect stuff and we keep making stuff for them to collect, the Beer Stein will enjoy a long and prosperous life.
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