The earliest antique German beer steins date to the fourteenth century, a time when earthenware was being improved, Germany was making new and improved brews and Europe was ravaged with the bubonic plague.
The First Steins
Beer steins evolved as a result of the laws passed in several German principalities stating that covers had to be on all beverage and food containers. The laws, and others related to sanitary conditions, were in reaction to the fear that a recurrence of the bubonic plague, also called the Black Death, would be caused by several invasions of flies throughout Central Europe in the mid to late fifteenth century.
Up until that time, most common folk drank beer from mugs made of porous earthenware or wood. The well-to-do and upper class drank from glass, pewter or silver vessels, called beakers or tankards.
The first steins were simply mugs and with a hinged lid with an attached thumb lift. As progress continued in the refinement of earthenware, a new material developed called stoneware. Chip and crack resistant, the new non-porous material was a perfect choice for holding beer.
Relatively expensive, the stoneware lidded drinking vessels soon became the subjects of Renaissance artists that added designs making them even more appealing. Early German beer steins from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries often had:
- Carved or applied decorations and decorative detailing
- Carved or applied scenes including figurative, historical and Biblical
- Carved or applied shields
- A clear salt glaze
- A chocolate salt glaze
- A cobalt oxide blue glaze
- A manganese oxide purple glaze
The Introduction of Faience
By the mid seventeenth century, German beer and stoneware beer steins were in high demand. The elite members of the German society wanted elaborately decorated steins made of silver, pewter or glass which were made in Bavaria, Koblenz and Koln.
However, there was also great attention paid to the beautiful porcelain Ming mugs of China. Although at the time European potters did not know how to produce porcelain, German potters produced a substitute for porcelain, called faience.
Beer steins made of faience, a type of earthenware that uses tin oxide to create a white porcelain looking glaze, quickly became popular in Germany. The German faience steins were:
- Less expensive than the Chinese porcelain pieces
- Adorned with beautiful decorative designs and motifs in late Renaissance and early Baroque styles rather than Chinese designs
- Beautifully glazed since the German blue glaze was purer than the Chinese blue glaze giving the steins stunning coloring and crisp lines
Porcelain Antique German Beer Steins
Many German beer stein makers continued making faience steins throughout the eighteenth century. At the same time, European porcelain had been perfected and the costly German porcelain beer steins were in demand by Germany's wealthiest families.
Besides porcelain, several other materials were used in the making of beer steins during this time period. Like the porcelain steins, beer steins made of the following materials were also very costly:
- Enameled glass
- Engraved glass
Steins of the Mid Nineteenth to Early Twentieth Century
The German beer steins produced from the mid nineteenth to early twentieth century saw a resurgence in the popularity of stoneware steins decorated with Renaissance designs and motifs. These steins were:
- Made using clay from the Koln area which has a distinctive white color
- Decorated in the Renaissance style often having relief decorations
- Colored using a gray salt glaze
- Topped with lids of inlaid porcelain
This era is also the beginning of molded German beer steins. The first molded steins were made in the region of Weserwald by Reinhold Hanke. Once molds were used and beer steins were being mass produced, the beautiful highly detailed carved relief work of the early steins was no longer unique. It appears on hundreds, if not thousands of molded steins.
German Beer Stein Makers
The following are some of the many makers of German beer steins:
- Reinhold Hanke
- Dumler and Breiden
- Smion Peter Gertz
- Eckhardt and Engler
- Hauber and Reuther
- Merkelbach and Wick
- Marzi and Remy
- Reinhold Merkelbach
- Rastal Werk
- Albert Jacob Thewal
- J. W. Remy
- Villeroy and Boch
German Beer Stein Resources
The following price and identification guides are available at Amazon:
- The Beer Stein Book: Illustrated Catalog, Current Prices, Collector's Information by Jim Gruhl and Gary Kirsner
- The Beer Stein Book: A 400 Year History by Regina Kelleter and Gary Kirsner
- The Mettlach Book by Gary Kirsner
Collecting German Beer Steins
Although you will not find antique German beer steins made of early stoneware or faience in local antique stores or online auctions, there are many beautiful beer steins made in centuries past available to collectors.