Monday 27 April 2009

The End of the Beer Coaster?

As someone who has cycled throughout Germany and enjoyed many a fine beer after a ride, it was always a requirement to take a souvenir from the Kneipe, or pub, as a keepsake. In a shocking cultural development, Der Spiegel reported on Friday (a mere one day after German National Beer Day) that the largest manufacturer of beer coasters (also called "beer mats," or, in German, "Bierdeckel") has gone bankrupt:

Tough Times for the Humble Beer Mat

Small, beer-soaked and bedecked with all manner of slogans, the humble beer coaster has long been an essential part of a good pub or bar. But with its leading manufacturer now bankrupt, the cardboard institution may be heading for extinction.

For most of us, beer mats are just an insignificant piece of cardboard tucked under our glass of ale. But some have elevated the disposable coaster, which are a common sight in pubs in Britain and Germany, to a lofty status, considering it an art work, a collector's item, building material -- or even a piece of sporting equipment.

The record for beer-mat throwing stands at 38.26 meters (125.5 feet), while the highest beer-mat tower, created from more than 40,000 mats, stood proud at 9.70 meters. Leo Pisker, an Austrian, has an extensive collection of some 150,000 beer mats from around the world.

But now the economic crisis is threatening the beer mat -- and unnerving its fans. The world's biggest beer mat company, Katz Group, has declared itself bankrupt. Tucked away in Weisenbach in the south-west of Germany, Katz Group, which was founded as a sawmill in 1716, had been in the beer mat business since 1903. Katz International Coasters controlled around two-thirds of the European market and 97 percent of the US market.

Worried beer mat fans are asking themselves what the future holds. Over the decades, a whole scene has built up around the cardboard coasters. Some collectors travel to buy, exchange and admire at swap meets held across Germany. Others flaunt their collections on the Internet.

And despite its small surface area, the beer mat has been daubed with everything from political messages to adverts to saucy slogans. "A girl and a little glass of beer cures all woes," reads one, which features a beer mug-toting girl.

The cardboard beer mat made its debut back in 1880. Friedrich Horn, a German printing and board mill company, created small cardboard mats and printed messages on them. Before long, their simple invention had become a firm fixture under beer glasses across the country. Bar keepers liked them as they protected their tables, didn't need washing and didn't cost them anything -- advertisers footed the bill in a bid to reach new customers.

But times have changed. Beer consumption is on the wane and demand for beer mats is also weaker -- so weak, in fact, that the market leader has gone bankrupt.

However, it is hard to imagine that the writing is on the wall for the paper coasters yet. After all, the humble products have kept bars and tables clean for years -- not to mention the special place they occupy in the hearts of aficionados.

jas -- with wire reports

Of course, this may be only a momentary setback, but Der Spiegel has kindly included a slide-show of 41 different coasters to enjoy here.

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