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 Beer Steins: Drinking My Way through History

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Kunst Historiches Museum Wien (Permission for educational use granted)

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Observing beer brewing at the Frontier Culture Museum (personal photo) Fall 2016.

Researching the history of everyday objects can uncover new perspectives and allow historians to become entrenched in the lives of everyday citizens. For my research project concerning an object used in Early Modern Europe I chose to research beer steins. I had the opportunity to volunteer at the Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton, Virginia, in a 17th century English farmhouse and learned the process of beer brewing. I learned the process of beer making is a time consuming, strenuous, and smelly process that took place in everyday households throughout Europe. In the two hours that I volunteered at Oktoberfest I watched water boil, added hops and barley into the boiling mixture, and enjoyed intellectual conversations with the other volunteers. The mixture was a dark molasses color and the stench of hops and barley filled the house and lingered in my nostrils throughout the day. The majority of the two hours that I volunteered was spent watching the water boil, smelling the bursting of grains, and straining the mixture as depicted in the picture above.

The volunteers spoke about their knowledge of everyday people in 17th century Europe and how beer affected their everyday lives. Some of the information consisted of how women buried the burden of brewing up to ninety-six gallons of beer at one time because each member of the family drank roughly a gallon of beer a day [1]. Children also drank beer and the alcohol percentage ranged from two to three percent. I learned that the reason for this excessive beer drinking was due to the sanitary conditions of the water and the lack of tea, coffee, and hot chocolate until the mid 17th century. According to my research, the lack of sanitary conditions is also what led to the invention of the beer stein in order to stop the spread of the black plague in Europe [2]. Overall, I was able to learn the affect of beer on everyday people, how essential beer and beer steins were for the people of this time period, and more importantly how to make beer for future reference.

The origins of the beer stein began in Early Modern Europe following the end of the Bubonic Plague. The word stein is a shortened form of Steinzeugkrug, which is German for stoneware jug or tankard [3]. They were created due to the black death which lasted from 1340 to 1380 and resulted in the death of more than 25 million Europeans. By creating beer steins for sanitary measures regulations such as the covered container law came into effect. In the book titled, The Beer Stein Book A 400 Year History, by Gary Kisner, he went into great detail about regulations passed during this time period. The covered container law that was passed in Germany required that all food and beverage containers must be covered to protect consumers against the flies that had invaded central Europe. The materials for beer steins included a hinged lid with a thumb lift and this invention was conceived entirely for sanitary measures. Another important regulation passed was a law known as the purity law, or Reinheitsgebot in German. This law restricted beer making to only four ingredients, hops, cereals, yeast, and water, and has remained in place in Germany to this day. Originally well to do Germans had pewter beakers and silver vessels while the general public used wood or porous earthenware for their steins [4]. As time progressed experiments led to better earthenware such as stoneware and tankards began being decorated with shields, historical, allegorical, and biblical scenes. By creating new furnace designs this allowed the earthenware to become stoneware that was resistant to chipping and a more sanitary container.

Beer steins began to be made worthy of decorative art and some Renaissance artists supplied designs for such stein decorations [5]. Different salt glazes were invented during Early Modern Europe and an example would be a blue glaze that resulted from the melting of cobalt oxide in the 1600’s. Personal beer steins became popular during this time and became a status symbol for Germans to display to their friends. A result of the Black Death was a surplus of food especially grains that were used in local breweries. In the 1500s, Hamburg had over 600 breweries that produced 25 million liters of beer and supplied jobs to half the population of Hamburg [6]. Later the Thirty Years War from 1618 to 1648 would affect breweries as well. Northern breweries were destroyed due to the war and most of the southern vineyards as well. Due to this, Bavaria became central Europe’s beer land and beer also became the drink of choice throughout Germany and replaced cider and wine [7]. A new market for beer steins emerged as well and led to a growing industry in pewter, silver, and glass luxury steins became available. Steins became widely available in the late 17th century and this led to a growing industry and innovations in stoneware as time progressed.

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Observing beer brewing at the Frontier Culture Museum (personal photo) Fall 2016.

Beer began to affect all aspects of family life and everyone drank beer during this time. The origin of beer can be traced back to early Mesopotamia and Egypt and was made by products such as cereal grains [8]. Not only was beer the sanitary drink of choice but beer began being drank for leisure and also occurred on special occasions such as rights of passage and religious feast days [9]. Because of the commercialization of beer this made it possible to make beer with local ingredients and made beer more widespread throughout Early Modern Europe. However, due to this new widespread use of beer this led to a growing number of regulations. Feudal, urban, and central bodies all began being regulated and consumption had to be orderly and moderate [10]. They did allow drinking to continue though because the general public knew it was a facilitator of social exchange. Regulation began when the earlier steins were invented and also when beer was becoming a beverage that everyday people consumed.  Another way that beer consumption affected everyday people included taxes [11]. Indirect taxes were implemented on beer and wine because revenue was essential for society to progress during this time period.

Drinking in public spheres began to be both public and private in Early Modern Europe. According to Beat Kumin in his article, “Drinking and public space in early modern German lands” private drinking began to be considered “accessible to a lesser or more restricted extent [12].” While public drinking was considered anything generally accessible to the public. There were two types of public houses during this time and those included one specifically for drinking and one for hot meals and accommodations. The growth of public houses increased in Early Modern Europe and public houses were where most everyday civilians during this time would congregate while private houses were reserved for nobility [13]. Public houses were also used to stabilize order in Early Modern Europe. Public houses were accepted by the church within moderation and this made drinking seem more acceptable to society as well. Churches would sell alcohol to travelers along the highways and this led to an increase in illegitimate sale activities [14]. Another activity that English parish communities did was brew ale during major feast days to boost their revenue. The sale of beer became common in every sector of society and was also looked to as a sufficient source of revenue, Another place where sale of beer became common was in inns, taverns, and alehouses [15]. Inns were typically private households with a room reserved for the family and the sale of beer in inns became common. Taverns were the example of the relationship between public and private space during this time period and became a popular place to socialize for everyday people [16]. Violence also became commonplace in these public drinking spaces and ensured that the regulation of drinking must take place to ensure stability [17].

Volunteering for the Frontier Culture Museum during Oktoberfest allowed me to learn how beer and beer steins affected everyday people during Early Modern Europe and also how they brewed beer during this time period. Everyone in the family, including children, drank beer during this time and each family member drank roughly a gallon of beer a day. Since water was unsanitary during this time due to the Bubonic Plague beer was the sanitary drink during this time period. This led to the use of beer steins, experiments to better the earthenware, and tankards were decorated with shields, historical, allegorical, and biblical scenes. Conflict such as the Thirty Years War led to regulations as well as beer becoming the drink of choice throughout Germany that replaced cider and wine. Beer became regulated in feudal, urban, and central bodies throughout Europe and taxing beer became a source of revenue during this time period. The consumption of beer took place in both private and public spaces such as inns, taverns, and alehouses and these areas were subject to violence and drunken disorder. Beer and beer steins became widespread throughout Early Modern Europe and influenced all aspects of everyday life and led to customs such as Oktoberfest that are still celebrated to this day. Our ancestors truly drank there way through history but with a beer stein in their hand.

Video:

How it’s Made. Youtube. 2013.

Footnotes:

[1] Volunteering at the Frontier Culture Museum. 10/16/2016.

[2] Gary, Kirsner. The Beer Stein Book A 400 Year History. 7.

[3] Gary, Kirsner. The Beer Stein Book A 400 Year History. 7.

[4] Gary, Kirsner. The Beer Stein Book A 400 Year History. 8.

[5] Gary, Kirsner. The Beer Stein Book A 400 Year History. 8.

[6] Gary, Kirsner. The Beer Stein Book A 400 Year History. 8.

[7] Gary, Kirsner. The Beer Stein Book A 400 Year History. 8.

[8] Tom, Standage. A History of the World in 6 Glasses.13.

[9] Gary, Kirsner. The Beer Stein Book A 400 Year History. 8-9.

[10] Beat, Kumin. “Drinking and public space in early modern German lands.” 11-12.

[11] Peter, Clark. The English Historical Review 118. 513.

[12] Beat, Kumin. “Drinking and public space in early modern German lands.” 10.

[13] Beat, Kumin. “Drinking and public space in early modern German lands.” 13-14.

[14]Gregory, Semenza.  “The World of the Tavern: Public Houses in Early Modern Europe.” 821-822.

[15] Beat, Kumin. “Drinking and public space in early modern German lands.” 18.

[16] Gregory, Semenza.  “The World of the Tavern: Public Houses in Early Modern Europe.” 821-822.

[17] Beat, Kumin. “Drinking and public space in early modern German lands.” 18.

Bibliography:

Clark, Peter. “The World of the Tavern: Public Houses in Early Modern Europe.”The English Historical Review 118, no. 476.  (Apr. 2003). 513-515.

Kirsner, Gary. The Beer Stein Book: A 400 Year History. Corral Spring, FL. Glentiques. 1990.

Kümin, Beat. “Drinking and public space in early modern German lands.” Contemporary Drug Problems 32, no. 1: (2005) 9-27.

Kunst Historiches Museum Wien.

Semenza, Gregory M. Colón. 2005. “The World of the Tavern: Public Houses in Early Modern Europe.” Sixteenth Century Journal 36, no. 3: (2005) 821-822.

Standage, Tom. A History of the World in 6 Glasses. New York: Walker Publishing Company, 2005.