Early German Beer Steins
Who isn't familiar with the ornate, fat-bottomed, lidded beer stein that is almost a universal symbol of Bavaria? German beer steins have been around for centuries, and though today's highly-decorated versions might be seen as little more than artistic tourist souvenirs, the earliest steins were very functional indeed for their users.
The shape and lid of the stein, in particular, stand out. Beer steins were built to be sturdy, leak proof, and above all hold all the foamy beer goodness inside when tipsy users would swing the mugs around while singing or talking. That's the reason for the unique wide-bottom narrow-top shape of a stein, and one reason given for the hinged lids.
The truth of the hinged lid is more interesting, and slightly more gross. During the 15th and 16th centuries, when the beer stein was being developed, Europe periodically dealt with swarms of flies – in some cases, due to the heavy deaths from Black Plague, and in other cases from unknown origins. The lid on the stein kept flies out while keeping beer in easy one-hand reach of its drinker.
Like many things in Europe, German beer was improved by the Black Plague. The lidded beer stein, after its invention, was mandated by law as the princes and other nobles in the region tried to improve the health of those they ruled. They had noticed that in regions where the people observed greater cleanliness, fewer people died. Flies, rotting garbage, and dirt were to be avoided.
Beer itself had been brewed in a variety of ways, some not what you'd call sanitary: rotten vegetables, old bread, and eggs might all flavor a brew that was sometimes thick as soup. The wave of laws brought about by the plague also brought in the first food purity law: a rule that beer should be barley, hops, and water, dictated by the Duke of Bavaria. As a result of this edict, beer from Bavaria, where the beer stein was invented and was widely used, became the leader in German beers. Other German states quickly followed, and it was not long before German beer was renowned as the best in Europe.
Beer Was Safer Than Water
Beer wasn't just something you drank for fun at this time, either. Water was unsafe. With no water treatment plants and lots of open ditches and cesspools for human waste, towns were not only smelly, but were breeding grounds for dysentery and water-borne disease. By adding beer to your water, however, you not only got a buzz but also killed any bacteria and other germs in it. Wine had often been used in this manner, but the enormously improved quality in beer taste and purity killed what wine industry there was, replacing that drink with the most German of all liquids.
By the end of the 16th century, German beer in steins had become a symbol of not just Bavaria, but the entire region. There was one more step to the steins we know and love today. Most steins at the time were made of silver and other metals for the wealthy, and wood and porous ceramics for the poor. Wood and unsealed pottery, however, are prone to leakage, breakage, and a certain odor as they absorb liquids placed in them over time. The need for leak proof, tough, cheap materials to make beer stein led to a sort of German renaissance.
Steins Benefit from Development of Stoneware
Potters began to experiment with higher firing temperatures, new materials, and new firing oven designs. After years of work, they invented stoneware, a very hard, very tough pottery that lent itself well to the needs of the beer stein. It was, alas, not remarkably cheap – but it was moldable. To justify the higher prices of stoneware, potters began to place designs of many sorts on their lidded steins: religious symbols, coats of arms, or just fanciful characters, all decorated with glazes that grew increasingly more colorful. Buyers enjoyed another fringe benefit: in a crowded ale house, they always knew which stein was theirs.
So from the one issue, preserving health and cleanliness, we have the Bavarian beer stein, high-quality beer, and the invention of stoneware.