A stein is a specially designed cup or mug which is intended to hold beer, although in theory, any beverage could be served in a stein. In Germany, the nation which invented the stein, the cup is better known as a steinkrug or glaskrug, depending on the material used. Krug means “jug” in Middle High German, while stein means “stone.” The shortened form of the name is extensively used outside of Germany, but asking for a “stein” may lead to confusion in some parts of Germany.
The feature which distinguishes a stein from other types of beer mugs is the lid. A traditional stein has a hinged lid which is operated with a small thumb lever located directly above the handle. The drinker can handle the stein and lid with one hand, which can be useful in a crowded social situation. The lid keeps beer from spilling out of the stein, and also helps to keep the beer clean and sanitary.
Supposedly, the design of the stein arose as a result of a law passed in the 1400s requiring food and drink to be covered to prevent infestation with flies. Certainly regulations were passed during the same period to dictate the quality of beer, ensuring that it would be brewed with wholesome ingredients. The rise of the stein during the same period may simply be attributable to the larger volume of high quality beer being produced in Germany.
Any type of material could be used to make a stein. Common choices are pewter, silver, wood, stoneware, and glass. Steins for the wealthy might be made from ivory or include gold detailing. When the stein was initially developed, it was a personal possession, rather than a generic glass kept in stock at a pub. Personal steins would have been highly decorative and ornamental as well as practical, integrating carving, embossing, and colorful glazes. A high quality stein would have served as a status symbol.
In the modern era, many companies make souvenir steins for visitors to Germany. Each region of Germany has a crafts specialty, and regional beer steins often reflect aspects of German culture which are specific to a certain area. These steins are also made from an assortment of materials. Visitors can drink from these steins, or take them home to display along with a collection of other objects collected on traveling expeditions. Some companies also export limited numbers of steins to other countries, where they can be found in specialty stores.