Tegestologists and What They Love About Craft Beer

Tegestologists and What They Love About Craft Beer

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

The craft beer word for the day is tegestology. The word comes from the Latin, with “teges” meaning “mat,” and “ology” meaning “the study of.” Basically, tegestology is one of the sub-genres of breweriana. OK, I guess I may have to explain breweriana too. Breweriana is the subject that encompasses all collectibles related to brewing, both old and new (craft). So, within breweriana, tegestology is collection and study of beer coasters.

Now you’ve got the definitions, but stick around for the rest of the story. Coasters in breweries are not just for collecting, they’re about function as well. Coasters were first invented for wine bottles in the second half of the 1700s, with the name coming from the fact that many had small wheels so that they could be used to “coast” the wine around the table after the servants had retired. These were usually a fancy kind of appliance made of silver or wood, but they were followed closely in the 1800s in Germany by cardboard or felt utensils used for beers – called beermats (translated).

The first use of beermats for beers was to keep the bugs out of beer glasses as they sat on top of your beer, but since they were absorbent, they worked under the glasses as well. They were normally cleaned and reused, which wasn’t the most hygienic practice, but as times changed, so did coasters. It wasn’t so long after that (1920s) that English breweries started to produce beermats/coasters as a way of advertising their beers.

Breweriana collections are a big deal and big business. image credit: La Crosse Tribune

Coasters/beermats were a thing in bars through the 1960s, and then they started showing up in homes too, for people’s iced tea. It was at this time that the production started spanning all kinds of materials – wood, stone, rubber, etc. The craft beer boom in the 1990s to today has increased the commonality of beermats (dang, I still call them coasters, it’s hard to break a habit), so now they have really entered that position of collectable breweriana. As of 2017, it was estimated that more than six million beer mats are produced each year.

This is where the story gets complicated. Owning a brewery is expensive, and looking for places to save some money becomes important. That means that outside companies have/will come up with ideas to make money while ostensibly offering breweries choices and letting them decide how much money to spend. The result? Now breweries can buy beermats in various styles, thicknesses, and materials. Since thickness equates to absorption, but thicker also means more expensive, breweries have to put some thought into their beermat choices.

Materials: You can make a beermat out of just about anything under the sun. I would’t suggest making them from mayonnaise, but as solid materials go, most have been tried for coasters. Absorbent stone coasters are big for residential use because they are substantial and decorative. But for breweries, the most common materials are more temporary and recyclable.

Walter’s favorite came from Orthocity Brewery & Smokehouse in Warsaw (now defunct). They reused cardboard boxes (single wall corrugated fiberboard), cutting them into squares and stamping the name of the business on them with an ink stamper. Orthocity was forever getting shipments of materials in boxes, why not make use of them? The beermats could be reused several times before they had to go into the recycling bin, so this was a good choice for economic and green reasons both. Plus, they stick out in peoples’ minds. I would suggest that other breweries follow suit.

image credit: Orthocity Brewery & Smokehouse

Before they closed up shop, Larry Libey and Back Alley Brewery & Sports Bar in Goshen experimented with using round beermats cut from koozie material. When I say experimented, what I mean to say is that their supplier misunderstood the order an made the beermats from the wrong material. Yet it was a happy accident. Koozies are made from polyurethane foam or neoprene. They are somewhat absorbent, but best of all, they are washable and reusable for quite a long time.

It turns out the idea has taken off and some beermat/coaster companies now offer polyurethane foam beermats. I think Walter and I have seen them one or two other times. We can’t seem to recall what brewery/taproom/bar/restaurant we were in, but we’re pretty sure it wasn’t in Indiana. I would be interested in hearing whether a brewery thinks that they save money over the long haul, because they are 10-15x more expensive up front. You would need to reuse them many times to get your money back – and that means not having them stolen.

Cork is another option for beermats. Walter and I only have one of these in our collection (none of our collection came to us nephariously, by the way), from the Wrecking Ball Brewpub in Atlanta, GA. Cork beermats are more common I guess in Ireland (get it?), but here in the states I have seen them more often as merchandise for sale from a brewery rather than what they use day in and day out in the taproom.

The above examples are the more esoteric options for beermats, although there are undoubtedly types I have not mentioned. On the other hand, the most popular beermat material by far is pulpboard, sometimes called coasterboard. This material is easily printed on, holds its shape fairly well, and dries out in a decent amount of time so that they can sometimes be used several times. They are cheaper to manufacture, which is always good for a brewery, but the thinner they are the fewer times they can be used before being recycled, so a brewery has to decide where the sweet spot lies in ordering these.

image credit: Elite Flyers

If you google pulpboard, the first seven pages of results deal almost exclusively with coasters (none of the pages refer to beermats). This suggests three things, 1) pulpboard is by far the most popular material for beermats/coasters, 2) the major use for pulpboard in the world is as material for beermats/coasters, and 3) beermats/coasters are big business, with many dozens of companies involved in the business all over the country.

Thicknesses: Different materials make for beer mats of different thickness. In some cases this aids in moisture absorption and functionality, but thick beermats can cause problems as well. Late in an evening of drinking, one might find it more difficult to hone in on the center of the beermat. If it’s too thick, the chances of spilling the beer with a poorly landed pint go way up. This is also a possible with the cork and polyurethane beermats, so I guess a brewery has to factor the drunkenness of their patrons when they order beermats.

I’d say that in general there are four thicknesses of pulpboard beermats, each of which coming with a different functional life and cost per unit. In general, the thicker they are, the more they are going to cost. Material is also a parameter, but thickness may be a primary driver of cost.

The thickest beermats are the cork, polyurethane foam and the single wall fiberboard versions. However, right there along with those types is the thickest of the pulpboard coasters, called 80 point or heavyweight pulpboard. These beermats are 2 mm thick and do a good job of holding up over time and absorbing moisture. In our extensive collection of beermats, 80 point is fairly uncommon, yet not rare. However, I will tell you that they are less common now than they were even two years ago.

Much more common are the medium weight, or 60 point pulpboard coasters. These coasters are 1.4 mm thick and make up the majority of our collection. There are slight variations in thickness, perhaps from how much use they had seen before the found their way into our collection, but the majority of them are 1.4 mm or slightly less. These beermats seem to do the job just fine, but don’t last quite as long as the heavyweight versions.

A victorian wine coaster on wheels. image credit: T.H. on pintrest

A growing number of beermats nowadays are 40 point, or lightweight pulpboard. Thee are 1 mm thick or a bit less, and though they do come cheaper, they have some issues with functionality. Many breweries use beermats of this thickness, but it is more likely to seem them used for event or other temporary messaging. They don’t need to last as long because the event or deal will be over soon, so why pay more for a thicker beermat.

The thinnest of the pulpboard coasters is 15 point, or superlightweight pulpboard. This is really just like paper, and comes with multiple issues of function. We haven’t seen too many breweries move to this material, but they were unheard of two years ago, so this might be a trend – solely because they are cheaper.

Function as a Reflection of Thickness: Thicker (heavier) beermats are less likely come off the bar with the glass when you try to drink, with a couple of caveats. If their surface doesn’t allow for as much absorption, they will be more likely to form a seal around the bottom of the glass and get lifted by negative pressure. Second, if they get too wet, the same thing could happen.

Lighter, thinner beermats are going to form a seal much easier, and less negative pressure will be needed to overcome gravity. Are you getting the idea that this occurrence annoys me? It does. If my coaster sticks to my glass, I go straight for the salt shaker. A thin layer of salt on the coaster will prevent the seal from forming and will leave the beermat on the bar. In one instance I didn’t have access to any salt and tried to use parmesan cheese – I don’t suggest following my example.

Smart coasters haven’t become as popular as some would have guessed. image credit: thinfilmnfc

There are other functionality factors that thickness affects as well. If your beermat is a 15 point version, don’t try using it outside unless you nail it to the table. The slightest breeze is going to send it on its way. Also, thicker beermats will be able to be used more times before getting rid of them, and they are harder to destroy by nervous hands. I don’t have any idea why, but some people like to rip up beermats. Beermats are designed to reduce mess but by tearing them up you’re forcing them work against their intended purpose.

New technology: In 2017, Coronado Brewing Company in California tried out a new type of beermat. Imbedded in the material was something called thin film, an electromagnetic near field communication device. The thin film was coded and sent out a small electric signal that could communicate with cell phones. By tapping your phone on the coaster, you were led to the brewery’s website or any other content of their choosing.

The point was to grab patrons’ attention in a market where it was/is becoming increasingly hard to stand out. The thin film can also be used in packaging and such, sending potential customers to a video or other landing spot with just a tap of their phone. However, the article I looked at didn’t make clear if Coronado chose to use the NFC thin film in anything other than a run of beermats. However, Coronado stated that by using the “smart coasters” to market their new CoastWise session IPA they saw a 92% rise in mobile traffic over the test period. So who knows, this could be a wave of the future. On the other hand, I haven’t seen any news of breweries other than Coronado and Oskar Blues using them since December of 2017 -so maybe it isn’t so much of a trend.

Breweriana: The designs (artwork), shapes, and materials of beermats makes them both functional and collectible. However, they’re very collectible anyway. Collectors of breweriana (all things beer) are big on beermats. People have collections of thousands of them, from pre-prohibition days to collector sets, to series. They trade them, sell them, display them; along with beer can collections and stickers, beermats are some of the most collectoble things out there.

It has gotten to the point that many breweries are inundated each week with mail asking for stickers, coasters, etc from people around the world – literally, around the world. Eastern Europe is a hotbed of US craft brewery breweriana; they send SASEs in order that breweries can then send them whatever they are willing to part with. I have talked to several breweries in Indiana – not huge breweries by the way – who say they get 20-50 requests for collectibles each week. Amazing. I bet you didn’t know there was so much to beermats, did you? Now take your new found knowledge out in to the world and become tegestologists for craft beer.

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