I’ve been a beer stein collector for about 25 years. About 10 years ago I sold my business, a specialty database provider. At that point, I had some experience in compiling databases and beer steins were my passion, so with the spare time that had become available to me I tried applying my business skills to the hobby I enjoy and the Beer Stein Library was born.
If there’s one thing missing in almost every hobby, it’s a source of searchable information. When you’ve found an old beer stein and want to know something about it — When was it made? Who made it? How much it’s worth? — where do you go to find answers? There are some books available, but the few that exist cover very little of the territory and quickly become dated, particularly with respect to pricing information. My hope is that the Beer Stein Library will eventually come to be seen by collectors as something of an information warehouse, where they can both find what they’re looking for and contribute to the learning of others by adding information and photographs from their own collections.
It was actually my wife who first got me interested in collecting. It was my birthday and she bought me a beer stein from a local shop that turned out to be a reproduction of a 17th century stoneware piece from the Westerwald area of Germany. The stein was packaged with historical information about the original it was based on, as well as facts about some of the other pieces in the series. S.P. Gerz, the German company that made them went out of business in 1999, but they had hooked me on beer steins and I remain an avid collector today. I tend now to focus more on antiques, rather than reproductions and newer steins, but my original completed set of 25 Gerz early Westerwald reproductions remains one of the centerpieces of my collection.
I think that happens with a lot of collectors — someone will give you a gift or you’ll pick up a stein while vacationing in Germany and you start to become interested. Soon you have a shelf full of beer steins and eventually a whole room full of them and you’re still doing it.
Collectors Weekly: When were the first beer steins made?
Loevi: In the mid-1500s. The steins from that period were produced in the area around Cologne on the Rhine river, in towns like Siegburg and Raeren. A little later, in the early 1600s, the town of Creussen in eastern Germany emerged as a production center, and was the first to make use of enameling as a decorating technique. Other towns soon followed, with each geographic area adding its own particular styling traits to the drinking vessels of the day. The earliest steins were made of stoneware [see group above], but soon thereafter Faience steins began to appear in an attempt to compete with imported Chinese porcelain. The secret of making porcelain didn’t reach Europe until the 1700s, but these early steins imitated the look with a tin oxide glaze on earthenware, often painted with Chinese motifs. While all of these early steins are collected in this country, their rarity and high cost make them somewhat less popular among antique collectors than those of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The 1860s in Germany began what many collectors call the “golden age” of collectible beer steins. While the earlier steins typically had some form of decoration, they were principally intended to be functional. People bought them to drink out of, not to put on a shelf and look pretty. By the late 19th century, factories were springing up in the Westerwald area, which had been a center for German stoneware production for more than 200 years due to its abundant clay deposits. They started mass-producing steins that were often designed less for drinking than display. A similar transition to mass-production was also taking place in the porcelain centers in eastern Germany around Dresden.
The “golden age” lasted until the start of World War I, which began a period of economic dislocation from which the German beer stein industry has never fully recovered. As collectibles, however, steins from the golden age were just getting started. Largely as a result of soldiers bringing them back to America following World War II, German beer steins started to appear in this country in quantity and by the mid-1960s they began to attract serious collector interest.
“Almost every Mettlach stein is marked with a company logo, form number, and year.”
In recent years steins have become almost exclusively decorative items, many with themes aimed specifically at American collectors. In the 1970s Anheuser-Busch started distributing its own beer steins, which played an important part in the surge in popularity that beer stein collecting has enjoyed over the past few decades. A-B steins represent today’s most popular collecting area, even though none of them are currently more than 35 years old. The “Schultz and Dooley” character steins from the West End Brewing Company are another group of highly collectible contemporary steins made specifically for the U.S. audience. Schultz and Dooley were first introduced as talking beer stein marionettes used in television commercials for Utica Club beer in the late 1950s and early 60s. They became so popular that other cast members were soon being added to the commercials and the company began producing and distributing the first in a series of Schultz and Dooley steins, now consisting of almost 40 different characters, which continue to be sold today.
Most of the early collectible steins are German, but there are exceptions. I have 2 or 3 ivory steins that were probably carved in Italy. To the north in Scandinavia they made wooden steins, and even the Russians occasionally produced a beer stein or two. Today, more often than not, you’ll find that beer steins are made in Brazil or China, with many of the German manufacturers having succumbed to the pressures of globalization.
Collectors Weekly: How many different materials are collectible beer steins made out of?
Loevi: If you can think of it, they probably made a beer stein out of it. One of the most unusual I’ve ever seen was coated with Mother of Pearl. It sold for something like $120,000 at a recent auction. Another that you won’t see very often had a silver body covered with shark skin. Most steins of course are ceramic, but many other materials get used on occasion, including metals of all sorts, from pewter to gold.
Beer steins, like many collectibles, often reflect the culture and history of the place where they were made. One of my favorite subjects on German steins is the Battle of Teutoburg Forest in 9 A.D. when the Romans failed in an attempt to conquer the Germanic tribes in the area east of the Rhine river. That might not sound very important today, but consider the fact that the Angles and the Saxons, among other unconquered German tribes, eventually emigrated to England and their language went with them. As a result of that, the way we speak in the U.S. today is significantly less “Latinized” than it might have been had the battle of Teutoburg Forest gone the other way.
Of course, that’s only one small example of the many culturally related themes you’ll see on German beer steins, including an almost unlimited array of historical events and contemporary depictions of daily life. On steins that are being made today, particularly for the U.S. market, you can find scenes depicting everything from the American Revolution to muscle cars.
Collectors Weekly: Who did the art on the steins?
Loevi: The creation of a beer stein typically requires both a concept drawing and a sculpted model, so you could easily have more than one artist involved in the process. With many of the “golden age” German steins, the concept was drawn from period paintings. For instance, the work of Franz Defregger, a prolific painter of scenes from daily life in Bavaria, appears on literally hundreds of different beer steins. Another artist whose work appears regularly on steins is Heinrich Schlitt, who’s most well-known work is found on the ceiling of the Munich Rathskeller, but whose often comical depictions on beer steins are highly sought after by collectors. The work of some of the most famous German artists of the Art Nouveau period can also be seen on beer steins, including Franz Ringer, Richard Riemerschmid and others.
Of course, these people didn’t do any of the painting on steins directly. Their designs show up in the form of a relief representation that is molded into the stein, or as a printed picture which is then applied to a smooth surface on the body, either of which may then be enhanced with hand-painting by a factory painter. Occasionally you’ll see a stein with a completely hand-painted central decoration, but they’re relatively rare, simply because they’d be far too expensive and time-consuming to produce in quantity.
Collectors Weekly: Who were some of the major manufacturers?
Loevi: In the early days, beginning in the 16th century, every beer stein was hand thrown on a potter’s wheel. There was a master, journeymen and apprentices working in small shops, often with only three or four people. By the second half of the 19th century, mass production was introduced into beer stein manufacturing. Instead of being hand thrown, they started casting steins in molds, and that’s still what we do today.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries dozens of manufacturers opened relatively large scale production operations in Germany. The company that’s often described as the “Cadillac” of beer stein makers from that period is Villeroy and Boch. They had a factory in a town called Mettlach on the Saar river that produced well over 1600 different designs during the “golden age” of beer stein production. Mettlach steins in general tend to command a premium over other steins from the period, but most collectors seem willing to pay the price in order to be able to boast of at least one or two Mettlachs on the shelf.
There are probably about two dozen manufacturers from the “golden age” with names that would be recognized by the typical collector, most of which have long since disappeared from the landscape. Today, the biggest German manufacturer is a company called King-Werk, which wasn’t even formed until after World War II. Currently, the title of world’s largest beer stein manufacturer is held by a Brazilian company called Ceramarte, but that title may not stand for much longer, as production has been moving increasingly to countries in the Far East like China and Thailand.
Collectors Weekly: Did these companies put marks on their beer steins?
Loevi: They did in Mettlach, which is one of the reasons they are as collectible as they are. I’ve occasionally seen an unmarked Mettlach stein, but they’re few and far between, making Mettlach steins among the easiest to recognize. At a minimum, almost every Mettlach stein is marked with a company logo, a form number and the year of manufacture, so that even beginning collectors can purchase them with a relatively high comfort level. Other “golden age” steins are not necessarily so well marked, but almost every manufacturer’s steins have recognizable characteristics that make identification possible by experts.
The earliest steins (16th to 18th century) can often be found with potter’s marks, but are more typically recognized by decoration characteristics as products of a particular town or city, like the Siegburg and Creussen steins I mentioned previously.
Modern steins are typically marked in some detail and generally include the number of pieces planned in the “limited” edition, as well as a number assigned to the particular stein in question. Of course, like most “limited edition” collectibles in today’s world, the limit is typically set on the basis of how many pieces the manufacturer thinks it can sell and is largely meaningless.
Collectors Weekly: What about the lids on top of the beer steins? Did they all have lids?
Loevi: It depends on how you define “beer stein”. In Germany they have any number of terms to describe a beer stein, the most common being Bierkrug, which pretty much translates into anything you hold beer in. In the U.S. there’s an organization called Stein Collectors International, which concentrates its efforts principally on antique stein collectors, that has developed its own vernacular. To SCI members, any drinking vessel with a hinged lid is a beer stein. Without a lid, it’s a mug. If it’s a pitcher with a lid, it’s a pouring stein. Outside of SCI, those definitions don’t necessarily apply. In Germany, where it all started, with or without a lid it’s still a Bierkrug.
For a long time it was thought the Germans had enacted laws requiring the lids during the era when the Black Plague was sweeping Europe. It’s been pretty well established that such laws never existed, or if they did they were limited to insignificant geographical areas, but nonetheless lidded drinking and pouring vessels were commonplace in Germany by the end of the 16th century. If you ask a German why, the standard answer you’ll receive is that the lids kept the flies out. When the plague is coming down your street, you want to give it as little chance as possible to get into whatever you’re consuming. Today, of course, the lids are more traditional than practical, but it’s pretty easy to see how the tradition got started.
Collectors Weekly: Where do you do most of your research?
Loevi: It depends on what I’m looking for. When I’m researching a mark, there are a number of excellent reference books, mostly from Germany, cataloging stoneware and porcelain marks applied to beer steins and other ceramic objects. For research on the meaning behind a particular decoration on a stein, the Internet is by far the most important resource. I’m constantly amazed at how much information I’m able to uncover when I’m trying to find out something about a relatively minor event in history or an obscure monarch or saint. Of course, as is true with most collectibles, a critical source of information is the collector community. Much of what serious collectors learn over time has never been stored in an organized form, but we’re making every possible effort to change that state of affairs through the Library.
Collectors Weekly: What are some of the most interesting steins you’ve come across?
Loevi: I have about 200 steins in my collection, but my favorites are some of those early steins we talked about before. What makes the earliest steins most interesting to me is that each one has it’s own history and there isn’t another one exactly like it anywhere else. For instance, one of the prize pieces in my collection is a faience stein marking the coronation of August the Strong as King of Poland in 1697. How much closer can you get to holding a piece of history in your hands? Who knows, it’s even possible that a real European king actually drank from it over 300 years ago.
At the other end of the spectrum, I’m a baseball fan and I’ve got a stein that was fairly recently produced to honor Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs. It’s probably only worth about $20.00, but I like it and it sits on the shelf with some other baseball memorabilia. So interest is in the eye of the beholder, and if you’re a committed collector they’re almost all interesting in one respect or another.
(All images in this article courtesy of Frank Loevi)