In 2004, a 22-year old US student spent 4 weeks in investigative custody in Munich. The accusation? He had tried to steal a beer stein from the most famous beer hall in the world, the Hofbräuhaus. The judge gave this case much thought and then decided to temper justice with mercy: after paying a fine of 1260 Euros, the young man was set free and returned to the United States.
Well, you could argue that the Germans are a humorless bunch. But when it is about one of our most beloved national treasures – beer – and the containers it is served in, we obviously don’t take jokes…
Beer plays an important role in German cultural life and many of our customs and habits evolved around beer. After all, there are over 1400 active breweries in Germany – a country which is roughly the size of Montana. In most parts of Germany, especially in the south, beer is not regarded as a beverage or even a luxury – it is simply considered as nutrition or “liquid bread”. This doesn’t mean that we Germans are such drunks (well, we might be), but drinking beer is deeply rooted in our history.
Back in the Middle Ages, people did not have a huge selection of beverages to choose from. Coffee, tea and hot chocolate only appeared in Europe in the mid-1600s. Herbal teas were usually only consumed for medical reasons. Milk and fruit juices were a rather short-lived pleasure in a time without refrigeration. Drinking water? That certainly was an option. But in the cities, most people relied on wells for freshwater supply. Very often, however, these wells were contaminated by waste waters from latrines and dung heaps, so the water from the wells could make you very sick. Beer and wine were the safest and therefore most popular drinks. The beer was usually small ale and had a much lower alcohol content than today and it was even given to children. No wonder that beer gained such an importance in German culture and folklore. But not only the beer itself, but also the beer stein.
The Beer Stein
The beer stein has been around for a few centuries and is the perfect container for beer: the earthenware mug would keep the beer from getting warm, the lid made sure no insects would spoil your beer and you could show off your wealth by having a custom-made, individually engraved beer stein. Although beer steins are made all over Germany, you see the most in the beer gardens of Bavaria. Beer gardens are the textbook definition of German “Gemütlichkeit” and go back to the 19th century when brewing became an industry and the breweries needed bigger cellars to store the beer in a cool environment. Often, those beer cellars were dug out close to riverbanks like in Munich along the Isar river and chestnut trees were planted on top of the cellars as they provide a lot of shade. It did not take long until people flocked to the cellars to buy and drink beer there. The breweries set up tables and benches to accommodate the visitors in the shade of the chestnut trees… and the first beer gardens were born. In the early days, you would still bring your own food to the beer garden as only the beer was sold there, and a real man would bring his own beer stein as they were status symbols. Sitting under the trees, you soon really cherished the tin lid on your beer stein that kept flies and leaves out of your beer. The beer stein truly is a symbol of German culture – beer, Gemütlichkeit & conviviality.