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The old stein and the beer

It sits there like a relict from times long gone: heavy, stocky, in its grey opacity almost provocatively outmoded. In the English-speaking world, especially overseas, it is regarded as typically German, and here in our country, too, it is often depicted as the faithful companion of the quintessential Bavarian: the stein – the dinosaur among the drinking vessels. Or so it seems at least.

But “tankards”, “beer mugs” and “Schnelle” (tall, slender tapered earthenware mugs) are not as antiquated and antediluvian as you might suppose. In Munich’s metropolitan area, for instance, there are taverns, inns and beer-gardens that are changing back from glass to earthenware mugs for serving their beers, while numerous online shops enjoy a flourishing trade with self-designed mugs. The tankard as a souvenir and a personalised gift. This has no longer much to do with its original function – drinking. But when you take a look back at history, you will find that in bygone times mugs were not used exclusively for imbibing beverages either.

In the olden days, contracts and alliances were sealed by toasting each other. And so the vessel used for this ceremonial mug-clinking was correspondingly significant. Whether it was earthenware, clay or horn mugs – the craft of the “mug-maker” was in great demand for centuries on end.

The tankard’s heyday was in the 16th and 17th centuries. Research literature on beer mugs – yes, don’t look so surprised!! It DOES exist – states that the artistically crafted mugs dating from the Renaissance and Baroque eras “bear witness to an opulent lifestyle and an unprecedented fondness for drinking”. Now, if that doesn’t sound like fun!

“Opulent” and “unprecedented” are indeed the correct adjectives for describing the tankards of those times: wooden mugs with highly detailed hunting scenes engraved on them, silver jugs with chiselled escutcheons and ornamental garlands, porcelain mugs accurately painted with their owner’s full-length portrait, or particularly decadent specimens made of ibex horn or ivory – if you’re headed for oblivion, do it in style!

During the 19th century, wealthy citizens above all liked to put artistically crafted tankards of this kind in their office cabinets. This had no longer anything to do with drinking, but with demonstratively emphasising their social status. Even today, you can pay a small fortune for the mugs that were manufactured in the famous history-steeped mug manufactories in the Rhineland, the south of Saxony, and Silesia.

But let’s get back to the here and now. Nowadays, the beer mug’s lot has become considerably more problematic, for a variety of reasons – Number One: hygiene. When about to drink from a full glass, you can detect relatively major soiling at least from the outside. When drinking from a stein, this is a matter of trust. Number Two: “short-filling”. Consumer-protection organisations have for decades been criticising the fact that since an earthenware or clay mug is by its very nature opaque, guests are robbed of the opportunity to check the correct fill level against the marking. Some years ago, there was even a rumour that the EU intended to prohibit serving beer in steins. Response: politicians from all camps were passionately and vociferously ranting and raving in protest against the EU’s standardisation-mania – and formed protective ranks in front of tankard, mug & co. The stein – a threatened species with its own lobby.

The rule nowadays is: each beer has its own type of glass. Our author Stephanie provided a detailed explanation of the abundance of beer glasses, and their specific idiosyncrasies. Starting with the wheat beer glass, then the altbier beaker, all the way through to the pilsner tulip – the stein’s competitors in the field of special glasses not only look daintier than the stein, they also enhance the taste of the beer in question – this is what many beer sommeliers say. And the growing craft-beer movement adds to the already-huge multiplicity its goblets and IPA glasses.

Sounds almost like a requiem for the stein, despite the alleged trend displayed in taverns and online shops. But who knows: perhaps today’s drinking from a stein – no matter whether a trend or not – once more conceals some sort of ritual: that of deliberately ignoring the special glass and choosing the heavy, old, grey tankard again. So you can feel like a reactionary and revolutionary all in one.

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