Stein Collectors International
Show and Tell

The Stein Way

August 2005

The Desert Steiners recently enlisted the help of the Arizona Daily Star to publicize the hobby of collecting beer steins, with the hope of attracting new members for SCI and their chapter. Hats off to them for a great idea!

You can pour your heart into this collection, but never beer.

There is one thing Tucsonian Ron Heiligenstein, right, won't do with the colorful, finely crafted beer steins in his collection: drink beer out of them.

"If you drink out of them, you have to wash them. And if you wash a stein, you could chip it under the faucet," says Heiligenstein, who has been collecting steins for 32 years.

He's a member of the Desert Steiners, a group dedicated to the art, history and Gemütlichkeit -- congeniality - expressed in the ornate German drinking vessels.

"These are an art form," Heiligenstein says as he shows off a variety of steins belonging to members of the group. "They were never really made for utilitarian purposes." Reeling off a concise short course in steins, he notes that the word itself is a bit of a misnomer.

"The word stein, in German, means stone," says Heiligenstein, whose own name means holy stone. "Early steins were stoneware, which is Steinzeug in German. Americans shortened it to stein."

To qualify as a stein, a vessel must have a handle, a lid and a thumblift. "Without the lid, it's a mug," Heiligenstein says.

Why the lid?

Heiligenstein says lids came into use centuries ago, when it was thought that bubonic plague was transmitted by flies. The lids were to keep flies out of the steins.

"Also, from a practical standpoint, the taste of beer changes with exposure to air," and lids limit the exposure, Heiligenstein says.

He says most steins are made of porcelain, but some are stoneware and others are pottery.

"The lids are always made of pewter," he adds.

Styles range from blue-gray salt-glazed stoneware steins to so-called "character steins" depicting people or animals.

Most high-quality, collectible steins are from Germany, but some collections also include steins from the United States and other countries.

Heiligenstein got his first steins from his mother, who presented them to him when he went off to college. Years later, during a trip to Munich, Germany, he came across steins similar to the ones his mother gave him - and he began collecting in earnest.

His collection, inspired by an avid interest in European history, is now focused on a type called regimental steins.Produced between 1890 and 1914, these elaborate vessels were associated with German regiments and are inscribed with the names of their original owners. Heiligenstein is an expert in this area, and the author of the book "Regimental Beer Steins."

Collectors cite several reasons for the fascination with steins.

"They're just such gorgeous things," says Spencer Wessling, president of the Desert Steiners. "You hold them in your hand and look at the history there, and the workmanship, it's beautiful.

Wessling says the group, made up of about 40 families, is affiliated with Stein Collectors International, with some 1,600 members in 28 chapters in the United States and Germany.

One goal of the group is to educate would-be collectors about the history of steins and how to recognize value.

Wessling says there's a big difference between cheap "tourist steins" and high-quality collectible pieces. There are so many reproductions out there now, and a lot of them are sold as authentic," he says. Rarity, quality of workmanship, historical context and overall condition are some of the qualities of a collectible stein, Wessling says.

Heiligenstein says that "the best way to avoid being fooled about the value of a stein is to educate yourself."

"A novice stein collector needs to accumulate knowledge," Heiligenstein says. "Join Stein Collectors International. Go to the web site ( for information. Wessling notes that the best steins - especially those produced in the so-called "golden age of drinking vessels" from 1880 to 1920 - are expensive.

Collectors typically pay hundreds to thousands of dollars for top-quality items. Individual steins have sold for as much as $25,000, Wessling says.

"But we don't dwell on the money," he says. "You don't buy steins as an investment. You buy them because they're rare and beautiful and full of history."

Above, An 18th century Westerwald stoneware stein. Above, A porcelain character stein (c. 1900) featuring two symbols of drinking - the monkey (habit) and the herring (cure).
Above, Two glass steins from the mid-1800's. Above, A carved Norwegian burlwood stein, 18th century.