It’s late summer now. Leaves are only thinking of turning, while American shelves are plagued by premature pumpkins. On the horizon is Oktoberfest and all its admiring, leather-strapped knock-off parties. So fall approaches…but just now it’s summer. Forget Labor Day, the equinox is not till September 23. There is a lot of baseball left to play.
It’s still warm here in Germany—today anyway—and maybe where you are too. The sun is intense enough to strike our glasses of beer and harm their smell and taste, even as it warms the liquid. The usual trick is to drink quickly enough that this doesn’t become an issue. Another trick is simply to protect it from sunlight.
So in my backyard we have embraced what Americans often call the stein. The word doesn’t work that way for Germans, who think of rocks instead of beer; they’re more likely to say krug or bierkrug or steinkrug or seidla. They have other words for it—humpen, henkel, halber—but I’ve only read them, never heard them. Full disclosure: I’m not an especially good listener.
Feel free to argue about whether the word stein is bad tourist German, or whether it has become accepted English. I know that the S-word upsets my friend Nick. “Calling a Steinkrug a ‘stein’ or ‘beer stein’ angers me to the point of shaking and trembling,” he tweeted at me. “A Glaskrug is great though.”
But a glaskrug is still clear glass, and that isn’t enough for me. Lately I want nothing less than full opacity.
Beer can be beautiful, and clear glass shows that off well. But visual aesthetics are not everything. Thick stoneware is a better insulator than glass. It keeps liquid cooler. I like sticking my nose in there—especially on a hot day—and feeling something like a cool draft wafting up from below. It’s like a wee keller you can hold in one hand.
But we don’t normally stick our noses in there just to feel air, or to smell the beer. They go in there because they are attached to our faces. Which are thirsty. We want to drink…and to taste.
The opaque exterior works a bit like a blindfold. There is a lot to be said for blocking out certain senses to amplify others—or to help us focus. In this age of uppity appreciation (pinkies up!) we make a fuss about beer’s appearance. It has to be pretty, in case we want to enjoy it with our eyes. Fair enough. Bright beer and thick foam are visual pleasures, and pleasure is the point after all.
But we have other senses, and they are more important to drinking. Our eyes feed all sorts of expectations to our brain based on past experiences with various liquids. Those expectations alter how our brain interprets the data it gets from our nose and mouth. Closing your eyes—or using an opaque tankard—is one way to short-circuit the process and give more credit to olfaction and taste buds.
There are other benefits, like the fun of participating in nostalgic tradition. Krugs are old-timey. And there is something to be said for the ornate ones commonly found in souvenir shops and on mantelpieces, until you have to dust them.
Likewise there is something to be said for the hinged lids—because they are fun to open and close, and because it only takes a few minutes in a German biergarten in summer to understand that forget the flies, wasps here are a goddamned plague for about six weeks a year, fueled by widespread outdoor consumption of beer and spaghetti-eis and apfelschorle. Alas, washing a lidded stein is not cool, not an everyday activity even when drinking is. The lid and hinge also introduces a breakable part to something that is otherwise virtually unbreakable.
So forget the lid. An extra coaster atop the mug works just as well, keeping out not only bugs, but other stuff too, like…what’s this? Oh. A fallen leaf.