Beer mat, beer coaster, sous-bock, 啤酒杯墊, bierdeckel… these are just some of the many names for the piece of printed wood pulp that soaks up moisture from your glass of beer.
Now common around the globe, the beer mat can trace its origins to 19th century Germany. They were first produced in cardboard by printing company Frederich Horn back in 1880. But just two years later, Horn's cardboard creations were superseded by a wood pulp-based product that is still the model for today's mats. These were the work of another German-based business, Robert Sputh of Dresden.
German brewers quickly recognized the marketing potential of the beer mat and began printing advertising imagery on them. The idea then spread to the UK where, in the 1920s, London-based brewer Watney, Combe and Reid issued mats featuring the bottle labels of Watney's Pale Ale and Reid's Stout. Watney's initiative was quickly copied by other major brewers of the time.
In the United States, the beer mat didn't become a common sight until later in the 20th century. However, a small number were in circulation before the Prohibition in 1920. According to research by academic Dr. Max Nelson, these pre-prohibition items were manufactured in Germany, with some even featuring sayings in German.
The US pre-Prohibition coasters are among the most highly sought after items in the world of beer mat collecting, or tegestology (from the Latin word ‘teges', meaning matting). Some of the rarest are reported to have changed hands for more than $1,000!
Today, although brewing industry cost-consciousness means the beer mat is not quite the ubiquitous sight it once was, there are still an estimated 5.5 billion mats manufactured each year across the world.
Twenty-first century beer coasters retain the marketing ethos that drove their simpler forebears, but the march of technology has had an effect. Today's mats incorporate interactive features such as smart phone QR-codes, which give consumers immediate access to offers, competitions and augmented reality features. Two German inventors took the interactive element even further, designing a computerized mat that automatically detects when the consumer's glass is nearly empty and alerts the bar staff that they might wish for another beer.
But while tastes and technologies change, the drinker's love of the humble beer mat is unwavering. It's part of the ritual of a social drinking occasion, whether in Beijing, Boston or Bogotá. And as marketers commission ever more adventurous and interactive coasters, it seems the world's legions of tegestologists will continue to have plenty of new styles and designs with which to bolster their collections.
Did you know?
- Beer mats/coasters were originally placed on top of the glass, rather than under it. Their purpose was to keep dust and insects out of the liquid.
- Although they are called different things around the world, beer coasters are almost universally made from wood pulp, which is both cheap to mass produce and highly absorbent.
- The champion beer coaster collector is Leo Pisker of Austria. He has amassed a collection of more than 150,000 coasters from almost 200 countries.
- Beer mat flipping is a popular pub game in the UK. It involves balancing a stack of mats on the edge of a table, flipping them in the air then catching as many as possible. According to Guinness World Records, the record number caught belongs to a man aptly named Mat Hand, who managed 112.
- The world's largest beer mat was created by Danish brewer Carlsberg in 2002. It measured 15 meters in diameter and was 6cm thick.
A version of this story was first published on SABMiller.com on 14 April 2016