German beer steins originated in the 14th century. Shortly after they originated the bubonic plague hit and there were several invasions of flies throughout the European country. It was early in the 16th century that Germany developed laws requiring all food and beverage containers to have a protective covering. These laws included beer steins. This was the time that the European society went by the guild system. A combination of the pewter guild and the increased requirement for hygiene for food containers lead Germany to create an environment that expected the presence of pewter lids on any stoneware drinking containers. This expectation continued over the next 300 years. Beer steins were recognized as being produced in Europe by the end of the 19th century. They were recognized for being made mostly from stoneware and usually has an attached pewter lid.
It is important to not that the history of German beer steins must also recognize other materials that were developed and used to make beer steins. Pewter is one of these materials. There were many times that pewter was used both for the lids and the body of beer steins. This material was used especially in England, but was popular throughout large areas in Europe. Several centuries ago glass, porcelain, and silver beer steins began to appear. Beer steins made of these materials are still available today. This give idea is creative, historical, and artistic. As techniques change and improve there are many different styles to choose from. It is the traditions that have been passed down through generations that is needed for the skilled hands and eyes used to make these steins.
Fittings of Pewter
When trying to price and date a stein, the pewter fittings are examined. Until 1680 they were a domed lid that had a tiered finial (this is the figural representation or common design wish was on top of the stein). This was attached using a large, closed, five-ringed hinge. Over this hinge was a small thumblift. It was shortly after 1680 that larger ball-type thumblifts were included, along with lid rings and straps that reinforced the handle. This time period also used the five-ring hinge. When looking at steins from 1690-1748 you will see that the fittings contained footrings, lid rings, large elaborate lids, large ball-thumblifts, and straps to reinforce the handle. It was from 1850-1865 that the steins had pewter fittings which were smaller diameter hinges, lids made from thing rings which held glass or ceramic inserts, and thumblifts that could break easily. In the period of 1875-1914 you could find less expensive steins or more expensive ones. The less expensive steins were made of stoneware and glass. They included elaborate pewter lids and thumblifts. The more expensive ones, like the Mettlach, had ceramic inlaid lids.
It was not until 1875 that the open hinge started to be used on a regular basis. When pewter became scarce during WWI and WWII, many steins were produced using nickel-plated metal lids. Today there are various hinges and fittings that are used. The majority of the pewter lids originating from 1960 to the present are made to have a velvety, sandblasted feel.
The German word Steinzewgkrug is where the word stein comes from. Steinzewgkrug means stoneware jug or tankard. However, as the word stein was used more frequently and commonly it came to denote any beer container, no matter what it was made of or how big the lid was, or what the handle was like.
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The Original Beer Steins
Between 1340 and 1380 over 25 million Europeans were killed by the bubonic plague, also known as the Black Death! While this event was very tragic and emotional, it served as a turning point for civilization. Part of this turning point included the development of the beer stein. As a review, the difference between a mug and a stein is that a stein has a hinged lid. In the beginning the lid was solely a sanitary measure. Swarms of little flies invaded Central Europe during the summers of the late 1400s. It was in the early 1500s that Germany passed laws that mandated all food and beverage containers have a protective covering. This was to keep consumers safe from these tiny, dirty insects. This meant that even the common mug required a cover. In order to achieve this, a hinged lid with a thumblift was developed. Once this invention was released all German beverage containers were covered in this fashion, which allowed people to still drink using one hand. Many public health laws, including the covered-container law were passionately passed and carefully enforced so that the Black Death would not reappear.
Sanitation was on a steady decline from the Roman times through the 1300s. When the Black Death hit, people realized that the plague was related to how sanitary a place was. This was seen by the fact that the majority of the people in unsanitary conditions died, whereas only 10% died in areas that were kept sanitary. After the plague hit Germany passed several sanitary regulations in addition to the covered-container law. These included laws stating: pigpens could not be right next to streets, old or diseased meat had to have a label on them stating this fact, and beer could only be brewed using hops, cereals, yeast, and water. The strict regulations on the quality of beer and the transport of beer caused the taste of beer from Germany and German provinces to be greatly improved. It also impacted the production of steins. In many locations the amount of beer that was consumed each day increased by approximately two liters per day. In the 1500's, as amount of beer being consumed increased, beerhouses, city hall cellars, and taverns increased in number.
Through out the Black Death many churches stated that prayer would make the plague go away. Many also claimed that the word proclaimed in the Revelations was starting to come true. As time has proven both of these claims were not true, causing much of the public to turn to scientific beliefs. When the Renaissance began science began its marriage with art. With stoneware experiments came the knowledge that the firing temperature could be increased above 500C (900F). However, in order to achieve these higher temperatures a person could not just add more wood to the fire; new furnaces had to be designed.
Beer continued to be improved in both quality and taste. Beer did not just offer good taste and fellowship. It was believed to help the constitution because of the strength, health, and relaxation it promoted. From its beginning through the 1800s beer was believed to be one of the best medicines. It was actually considered to be a drink from the gods. It is true that glass beer beakers were used in Roman times. However, the Church believed that glass making was heathenish and was able to prevent most of its production during the Middle Ages.
The aristocrats wealth and power were decreased by the Napoleonic war and several other rebellions during this time. This allowed the middle class to become more powerful and increased the market for steins, as well as other artistic products. Through the early 1800s, porcelain and silver steins that had a Renaissance or Baroque design were still made to appeal to the wealthy. However, in the early 1800s the public preferred glass and pewter steins. This caused most of the faience workshops to close forever.
By 1850, any art teaching focused on having students replicate the forms and designs of any archaeological finds dating back to the Renaissance and Classical periods. The art style that resulted from this teaching has been referred to as neo-Renaissance and neo-Classical, also known as Historicism.
It was in the second half of the 1800s that glassmaking techniques developed enough to create molds for the mass-production of glass steins. However, when WWI began all the materials and labor needed by the pewter industry were used for making munitions. This meant that beer stein making pretty much came to an end.