A “stein” is a drinking vessel, usually with a handle and hinged lid, historically used for consuming beer. While cups and glasses have existed since ancient times, steins were first created in response to “the black death” or bubonic plague. Following the devastation of Europe during the Middle Ages, parts of Germany passed legislation requiring that all containers be covered. This new law kept swarming insects from contaminating food and drink. Thus, the stein was invented!
At first, steins were created entirely by hand: thrown on the potter’s wheel, fired in a wood-burning kiln, and painstakingly decorated. But by the second half of the 19th century, mass production of ceramics using plaster molds, along with rising popularity both at home and abroad, led to “the Golden Age” of antique steins. By the late 1800’s, beer steins claimed a truly unique place in German culture—a position that they still retain.
Many companies produced stoneware during “the Golden Age,” but the most popular was Villeroy & Boch of Mettlach, Germany. The manufacturer, founded in 1809 and located in an old Benedictine abbey, was the largest and most important producer of ceramics of the 19th century. Known to collectors as simply “Mettlach,” Villeroy & Boch steins are accepted to be the most artistic and of the highest quality.
The subject matter depicted on Mettlach beer steins ranges from whimsical characters to historical battles—and may be any number of things in between! Because custom steins were a popular gift for special occasions, the majority of them depict scenes highly personal to their owner. In fact, the two largest series ever produced by Mettlach revolve around skilled trades or professions. These series, both consisting of 12 designs, are the “The Mettlach Occupationals” and “The Book Stein Series.”
Recent decades have seen a renewed interest in collecting German beer steins, and the most valuable on the market are Villeroy & Boch steins manufactured during the Golden Age (c. 1885-1905). Much like hallmarks on silver, each Mettlach stein bears the Villeroy & Boch mark. The most sought-after being those featuring the silhouette of the old Mettlach tower. Below the tower is a rectangular banner reading “Mettlach” and a semi-circle bearing “VB” for Villeroy and Boch. The base will also bear three numbers—the left designates the artisan or decorator, the center lists the serial number, and the right records the year that it was made.
Whether you are drawn to exceptional rarity, specific subject matter, or simply designs that you find interesting, no collection is complete without a beautiful beer stein by Mettlach!