The German beer-making tradition has a rich history. So too does the impact of the stein. Drinking beer from a stein is a uniquely pleasurable experience, both in the way it fits in your hand and the way it looks to the eye. When asking, ‘what is a Stein?’ it’s important to remember that form follows function. So keep this in mind as we break down the purpose, timing of use, and symbology of one of Germany’s most iconic drinking devices.
What Is a Stein?
Once you’ve gotten your palate used to the way Germans brew their beer, you begin to develop a taste for their distinct quality. Then you can start to get more authentic in how you consume it. What is a stein? Technically, it’s a vessel to hold your beer that has a lid to keep the container closed for when you’re not sipping. But ultimately, it’s a way to consume German beer; or any kind of beer for that matter. In drinking from a stein, you’re taking on a classic German look that’s been pulled off for generations.
Having a stein will give you undeniable credibility down at your local beer garden. It says that you enjoy your beer as a pastime. It also says that you like enjoying it in style. The stein tics many boxes in terms of what it can be. In addition to being a great drinking vessel, it can also be a collector’s piece, a souvenir, a well-made investment, and a status symbol.
So read on to find out the origins and some key fun facts about the stein. That way, the next time you’re holding one at a beer garden, you’ll not only look stylish but also be an expert.
The History of the Stein
Image from Pixabay
The word stein comes from the word Steinzeugkrug, which is a German word meaning ‘stoneware jug.’ Though these days, as long as the mug has a hinged lid and handle it can be considered a stein, even if it’s not made of stone. It’s common these days to ask “what is a stein.” It’s been a while since these and other similar vessels were commonly made with the craftsmanship and attention to detail that the original steins sported. But if you’re looking out for one, you can still find a quality or even antique stein.
The original way the stein was used was to prevent the bubonic plague from spreading back in the 14th century. The 1300s were an especially deadly century for this pandemic, which killed almost 25 million Europeans. As a result, the way gatherings took place fundamentally shifted; especially as, at the time, it was thought that flies could spread the disease.
The hinged tops that are characteristic of steins were conceived to serve a purely sanitary purpose. There was a law, observed through much of mainland Europe, requiring everyone to keep all forms of food and drink covered. The top that became the calling card of the stein was eventually applied to almost all commercial drinking mugs and glasses.
Even More Aesthetic Attention
The addition of the lid component caused it to take longer to make these new drinking devices. So in the process of creating them, the makers also started decorating steins as well. If you lived during that time, you’d also find others asking how your family history might show up on your stein. Steins were frequently bedazzled with ornate jewelry or carved reliefs of a certain family’s crest or symbol. Depending on the how expensive the material it was made with was, you could be drinking out of your very own status symbol.
Significance to Europe’s Elite
The Middle Ages were a difficult time to survive, even if you were somewhat well off. But what did the steins of the wealthy look like? What is a stein at the height of its value? Some of the steins that belonged to affluent families hundreds of years ago are probably in private collections or sitting in museums, now. But their appeal has not faded.
Some of the finest materials were used to create the luxury steins of that day. These steins were expertly crafted and made of pewter, silver, or glass, which was a luxury then. Soon after the success of these items took off, their international appeal began shine, as well. Demand in China was up for these unique beer containers. Unfortunately, Europeans were less than skilled at crafting with porcelain than were the Chinese, so they used a substitute: faience.
Repurposing Old Steins
During the World Wars, if you asked ‘what is a stein lid made of’ the answer you’d get would be ‘nickel.’ This is because materials like tin and pewter were in short supply during these conflicts. The priority was for military forces to have everything they needed, and this would ultimately lead to a fundamental change in how steins were crafted.
Stein Symbolism and German Culture
Image from Pixabay
Sometimes you can figure out hidden meanings based on what appears on your stein. Finding these meanings, or simply making your own, can be a fun way to create stories about your favorite mug. So the next time someone asks ‘what is a stein?’ you’ll be able to hold up yours and talk about some of the meaning that its designs hold.
Seeing a monkey on a stein conjures up the phrase: ‘the monkey on your back.’ It’s a phrase that uses the monkey to symbolize a bad habit. In the case of the stein, it is drinking itself that’s the habit. Seeing the monkey on a stein is a tongue-in-cheek way of saying that you realize excessive drinking can be a problem. Even still, you’re going to drink your fill of it from your stein.
In Germany, the sounds you hear from a highly hung over person are similar to the groans you hear from a cat. In this way, seeing a cat on a stein playfully mocks this behavior in humans.
In more ways than simply on steins, the lion represents courage, valor, loyalty, and royalty. It’s this sentiment that gives the lion a special place on the stein. In addition, lions are frequently used to represent Bavaria or Munich.
To Germans, the bear is a symbol of strength. It also is the animal that represents Berlin, Germany’s capital. So seeing this on a stein is a great way to feel patriotic if you’re in Deutschland.
In German culture, the pig is a symbol of good luck. This is why it’s often seen pictured in a celebratory manner on the side of certain steins. Even the German expression for ‘good luck,’ literally translates to ‘have a pig.’ During the Middle Ages, pigs were frequently given to losers of games and sports as a consolation prize.
True to its meaning in many different cultures, seeing this image on a stein may indicate that the drinker is sly or cunning in his or her own way. What is a stein with a fox? An enigma.
Frequently pickled, these small fish are similar in size to sardines. They have been touted for many years in German culture as being a hangover cure. Seeing this on the side of someone’s stein may indicate that they both enjoy their beer and are exceptionally practical.
What Size Stein?
Choosing the best size for your stein really comes down to how much you drink in a single sitting. It’s also a question of how often you want to refill your stein over the course of the evening. Beer gardens frequently have three different sizes when it comes to how beer is consumed. A similar measurement holds true for most of the steins you can buy in America.
The standard sized stein is two pints. This is traditionally how large they’ve been made, though it is also possible to find smaller novelty sizes. On the other hand, if you want an oversized version of the stein, you should go with ‘the tankard,’ which is similar in look but larger.
Other Mugs: Das Boot
If you were wondering if there were other clever ways the Germans drink beer, the answer is yes. German ‘beer boots’ are glasses based on the design of boots for your feet. The origin of the look actually goes back to some of the earliest recorded hazing rituals. In the midst of these rituals, those being hazed would have to drink beer out of an actual boot. In this case, the boots in question were usually the boots of the smelliest, most unkempt member of the party.
So how will you use a beer stein the next time you pick one up? Will it be to impress your friends? No matter what your purpose, drinking out of a stein will definitely bring you some attention. How you use that attention after you have it will be up to you.