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14 April 2016

An absorbing tale

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 But just two years later, Horn’s cardboard creations were superseded by a wood pulp-based product that is still the model for today’s mats.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 recognised 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 to use its proper name (from the Latin word ‘teges’, meaning matting).  Some of the rarest are reported to have changed hands for more than $1,000!