The world's largest producer of beer coasters is based in Germany and has been making the froth-soaking mats for 100 years. The beer-drinking accessory remains a decidedly European thing.
Taking a closer look at beer coasters.
They're great for stabilizing wobbly tables. They're building blocks for elaborate towers bound to collapse just before completion. Many a love poem has been written on them.
Mainly in Europe, of course, since the continent is still home to most of the world's beer coasters.
Europeans might only consume 25 percent of global beer production, but they go through a lot more coasters than lager drinkers in other countries. About three quarters of all "beer lids," as they're called in German, land under a European beer mug. "The Americans still use a lot of napkins," said Elmar Hohmann, chief executive of Katz International Coasters, a company based in southwestern Germany that produces about 40 percent of the world's beer coasters.
Hygienic froth-soaking power
Napkins, of course, clearly lack the soaking power a well-made coaster can provide. At 107 millimeters (4.2 inches) in diameter and a thickness of 1.6 millimeter (0.06 inches), coasters can withstand more froth, a lot of which is required by any self-respecting beer drinker in Germany.
Before Robert Sputh of Dresden first used paper pulp to make coasters in 1880, felt coasters did an even better job soaking up the suds. But they quickly started harboring bacteria and began to smell after a while. That's not exactly hygienic, since the coasters also served as lids for those who were unable to afford beer steins with silver or tin covers -- necessary to keep leaves and insects from falling into their drinks while sitting under the trees in the beer garden.
Germans love lots of froth on their beer. Coasters help to soak it up.
Today's cardboard coasters are unlikely to get as filthy as the old felt ones. But beer drinkers should insist on a new one and tear it apart after they're done, Hohmann said -- after all, that's part of the tradition. Admittedly, he also has his own business interests in mind.
While Sputh is acknowledged as the inventor of cardboard beer coasters, it was Casimir Otto Katz who began producing them on a large scale in 1903. The company now employs 190 people and produces about 1.4 billion coasters a year.
To make them, fir wood, which has great soaking power because of its long fibers, gets turned into pulp and is then dehydrated.
Environmentalists are bound to worry about the killing of trees necessary to keep froth from dripping onto tables. But the company claims it only uses trees that are lumbered for the purposes of controlled thinning of forests.
"For our beer coasters, no tree gets felled that would not have had to come down anyway," Hohmann said.
Jigsaw puzzles and mini boomerangs
Katz still makes conventional coasters, but the company also caters to specific customers' needs. It has made them in the shape of Australia for a brewery Down Under and designed the world's thickest coaster for a large American beer maker.
Hohmann's employees have produced jigsaw puzzle coaster sets and perforated coasters with a mini boomerang (called "fingerang") in the middle. Aficionados can even order monogrammed coasters at the company's Web site.
Promoting tourism, advertising political views
Coasters in general used to be nicer in the good old days, when more breweries still used them to plug their towns as tourist destinations, says Winfried Friedel, president of the German-based International Association for Brewing Culture. "It's really amazing what colourful coasters they already made back then," he said.
Nowadays, breweries use coasters mainly to advertise their own beer brands. But others have discovered the advantages of reaching customers while enjoying a drink as well. Businesses, radio stations, movie theatres and even political parties now order coasters to plug their messages. "They're cheap and generate a lot of attention," Hohmann said.