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What is a Stein?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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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.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a DelightedCooking researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By titans62 — On Jul 03, 2012

Didn't the Black Plague happen sometime around the 1400s? It seems like maybe that would have been one of the reasons behind making people have covers on top of their glasses. That being said, I am pretty sure the Plague was caused by rats and fleas, so I don't think the stein lids really would have been that much help.

I got a pewter stein one time by being in a wedding party. That is the only one I own, but I like it. I don't usually drink out of it, because it is kind of heavy, but it is an interesting thing to have sitting around in my kitchen.

The only other time I have used a stein is at Medieval Times. At least all the ones that I have been to, they serve your drink in a big stein. I think a lot of other restaurants serve drinks in large mugs, but that's not quite the same as a stein.

By cardsfan27 — On Jul 03, 2012

I always wondered what the lids were for, so that was interesting to learn. I have a friend that collects beer steins from different places. Most of them he has gotten from places in the United States, but he went on a trip to Germany and central Europe last year and came back with quite the haul.

Like the article says, most of them reflect the place where they were made. As you might expect, the most elaborate ones are found in Bavaria which is the area that people often associate with Germany and beer drinking.

Interestingly, my favorite stein that he came back with actually came from Switzerland. It was a normal-sized clay or porcelain stein, and it was painted with a scene from the Swiss Alps. The artist had also taken the time to carve out the outlines of the mountains so that they stood out on the stein.

By Izzy78 — On Jul 02, 2012

@kentuckycat - Yes, you can find steins with all kinds of things on them now. I went to a baseball game not too long ago, and one of the promotions was that they were giving away a Budweiser stein to the first so many fans.

I think some of the antique steins are very beautiful, though. I went to Germany on a trip back when I was in high school. I guess steins are one of the things that everyone associates with Germany, so you can find them in gift shops all around the country. Most of them are cheaper ones that tourists would like to buy, but in some of the museums and places, they have older steins that were owned by kings and high ranking people.

I think most people usually imagine a beer stein being about the same size as a pint glass, but we saw one that was made of pewter and very large. I think it held a couple of liters of liquid. It was very elaborately carved and painted, and I'm sure it would have taken a very long time to make.

By kentuckycat — On Jul 01, 2012

@anon29459 - I guess it would depend on what time period you were talking about. I would say on the older beer steins that the engravings were meant to symbolize someone's social status. For example, a king or lord might have his family crest or some sort of other identifying marks. Meanwhile, the steins for the poorer people were probably just plain or with very little decoration.

Nowadays, I think the designs would be less of a status symbol and more of a mark as to where the stein was made. Like the article says, each part of Germany is known for something unique. If you find a stein with drawings of that thing, it might be a good indicator that the stein was made in that part of Germany.

Now that steins are popular all around the world, you can find them with almost any design that you want. I'm sure you could buy your own plain stein and paint it yourself if you wanted.

By anon29459 — On Apr 02, 2009

What do the pictures and engravings on the side of the steins mean?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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