For my turn at the Pittsburgh Symphony tour blog, I have chosen to write about an often overlooked part of German culture, the beer coaster. Bierdeckel have been around forever in Germany, and are now becoming standard in American pubs. These mats or coasters generally advertise the particular brand of beer served by the pub. Everywhere you go here, there are beer mats advertising local brands (for example Gaffel Kölsch here in the Cologne region) or national/international brands like Beck’s or Bitburger.
Today was a day off before our final concert of the tour in Bonn. A friend of mine who plays bass in the West German Radio Symphony Orchestra in Cologne suggested I come over—it’s a quick train ride from Bonn—and hear their concert. And, of course, go out for some Kölsch afterwards. That’s the lightweight but flavorful regional brew whose name derives from the German “kölnisch,” the adjective form of “Köln” or Cologne. Followers of our blogs from previous tours will remember that Kölsch is the beer served in small glasses to orchestra members upon exiting the stage at the end of concerts in the Cologne Philharmonie. (An excellent tradition…hint hint.)
So I took a busman’s holiday. The concert ended with an amazing performance of the too-neglected Third Symphony of Prokofiev (hint hint?), a 1928 piece that is every bit as wild and experimental as anything by Stravinsky or Bartok. Afterward, we went down the street to the Sion Kölsch beer hall. Typical for these places, they serve Kölsch in .2 liter glasses (just under 2/3 of our standard bottle), and they keep it coming until you signal them to stop. The signal is to place your Bierdeckel on top of your glass, not under it. I learned that the hard way several years ago, when the waiter brought me one beer more than I wanted, and was not at all happy about me refusing it. I hadn’t signaled.
My history with Bierfilze goes way back to my first time in Europe as a 16-year-old exchange student. The first beer I drank in my life (here it’s legal at 16) was Binding Bier, made in Frankfurt and I “stole” the mat. That was the beginning of a rather large collection that now resides in some boxes in my attic. I remember my habit of running into pubs while out walking with friends, much to their annoyance, and coming out a minute or two later with a new coaster for my collection. No need to order a beer—the barkeep would give them away. I found them fascinating with their often pretty artwork and clever slogans, light, easily collected and cheap. Plus, I got to practice my German a bit. (“May I please take a beer coaster?”) I even found some truly artistic ones, commissioned from artists for certain advertising campaigns. One such mat was not even for beer—in a real play on tradition, the coaster advertised a particular brand of artists’ paintbrushes.
These things have lots of names both in German and English. In very formal German, one calls them Bierglasuntersetzer, precisely “beer glass under-setters,” They are also called Bierfilze or “beer felts,” but most commonly Bierdeckel, or “beer covers.” Not sure why a cover came to be under the beer glass. (Maybe if I had understood that, I would have known how to signal the end of my Kölsch drinking session.) In English, it’s beer coaster or beer mat. Whatever you call them, they’re usually square or round, and occasionally other shapes, but always out of thin, absorbent, non-corrugated cardboard.
They’re ubiquitous, and now you know more about them than you ever wanted!