Breweriana: Collectible Beer Steins

Beer Stein

Breweriana is the collective detritus of breweries and beer fans from the days past.  Breweriana takes many forms, but the arguably oldest form of collectable breweriana hails from Germany, where beer Steins or bier Steins have been crafted sold and handed down for generations.  Although the tradition of beer steins has largely faded from practical use, those who have been left with old hand me down beers steins may find that they have antique treasure worth up to $3,000.

Originally known in German as the "Steinkrug", the beer stein is a traditional mug for serving beer, which can be made of porcelain, silver, crystal, glass, or wood.  Some steins have an open top, but most collectable varieties have an intricately cast or carved lid with a thumb-action lever.

As a child, I remember looking up on the shelf in the den and seeing the variety of intricately crafted beer steins.  Amid hand me downs from the family past were also spoils of war from my grandfather’s campaign in Europe during World War Two.  Such history was held in those beer steins, and swept away with the intervening years so that today, I have but two of the remnants of that fine collection.

Although not seen in the pub or at parties much these day, the practical benefits of the beer stein are as useful today as they were in the 17th and 18th centuries.  Although replaced with the pint glass in most pubs, the stein typically holds at least as much beer as a pint glass.  Older steins are likely to hold around one and a half liters of beer, which, back in those days, was considered one serving of beer.  More modern sizes from Germany are likely to hold only one liter.

It was in the 14th century that beer steins first started becoming fitted with hinged lids.  The lids were indeed sanitary measures, the result of a German law that all food would need to be covered in order to prevent the spread of disease.  This law came with many other laws that popped up at this time, when Europe came back from the brink of decimation as a result of the black plague.  For instance, pigpens could no longer run up to the edge of streets, meat that was old or came from a diseased house had to be labeled accordingly, and the German Beer Purity Laws began.  It is from this stage that beer began to be homogenized on a national level:  beer could only be brewed from hops, barley, yeast, and water.

Steins remaining from the periods earlier than the 14th century tend to be made of pewter and silver, as the earthenware and wooden steins from that period were easily broken over the yawning of the years.  The pewter guilds held onto the premier production spot for steins until the ceramics crafters of Europe invented stoneware, which proved much more durable that the old clay earthenware.  Not long after, porcelain and glazes also emerged on the scene.  A lot of advances in stein technology occurred around the 1700s, of course, during the Renaissance.

The additional benefit of the thumb-action levered steins come in especially handy for keeping unwanted materials out of your beer.  Flies, stray cigarette ash, and bits of food are always a downer when you find them in your beer.  I still use my capped stein from time to times when I find myself going to a party where such detritus may find its way into my beer.

Some varieties of stein have their own terms from the German, which you may run into while searching for the beer stein that fits you: 

  • "Humpen" are steins that are made from stoneware, using the process which partially smelts the clay together, producing a harder and less porous product.
  • "Steinkrug" are earthenware steins.
  • "Glaskrug" are glass steins, very few of which survived from ancient times.  Some of these are actually crystal.
  • Another term you might come upon is "Maßkrug", pronounced ‘moss kroogh’ in English.  These are steins that are explicitly measured out for one liter.

Hunting for steins is a fun and rewarding exercise in antique shopping.  Steins can be found in nearly every antique shop, and who knows, with a little knowledge you may find a valuable treasure in your breweriana adventure.