It’s a crisp November morning in Germany’s Black Forest, and I’m standing beside a pile of lumber as big as a house in the loading area of the world’s largest beer coaster factory. The factory, in the town of Weisenbach, population just north of 2,500, is the headquarters and main manufacturing center for the Katz Group. Each day, it receives lumber at one end and puts out beer coasters on the other — by the millions. The company produces 75 percent of the world’s beer coasters, according to its own statistics, accounting for 95 percent of the American market.
When the factory isn’t running full-speed, the place is downright serene. Half-timbered houses line the little streets. The Murg River, a Rhine tributary, bubbles through the center of town. In the distance, a castle sits perched on a forested hilltop. When Tuneer Kurt, the factory’s head of wood production, asks if I have ear protection, it’s so quiet I think I can hear the river. Nevertheless, I produce the two plugs I was issued on arrival.
Good, he says. It’s about to get loud.
You might not pay them much mind, but the humble beer coaster is an important piece of barroom ephemera. In addition to absorbing condensation or light spillage, their intended purpose, coasters are remarkably handy. Round coasters make excellent impromptu frisbees. On a spring afternoon, you can slide a coaster over your glass to keep out bugs. Coasters are also good for a quick note at the bar should one experience a moment of clarity; a coaster slipped into a back pocket is sturdy enough that you’re likely to notice it while preparing a load of laundry, whereas a cocktail napkin would go unnoticed into the wash. In Cologne, Germany, coasters double as bar tabs, literally. The kölsch beer commonly consumed in the region is under carbonated by design. Bars serve it in little 0.2 liter glasses, or "flutes," so it doesn’t go flat. (A normal German beer is 0.5 liters.) It’s easy to drink five or six, or more, if you’re in good company. Servers keep track of how many you put away by making a note on your coaster.
At capacity, the factory can produce 100 meters of pulp board per minute. That’s five to seven billion coasters per day.
Globally, beer drinkers go through billions of coasters a year. Although it’s by far the global leader today, the Katz Group did not begin as a coaster company. It was founded as a sawmill operation in 1757, and beer coasters as we know them didn’t exist until 1892. In that year, Robert Sputh, an inventor in Dresden, patented a process for pouring liquefied wood pulp into molds and letting the pulp dry out.
In his 2006 publication, A Guide to Collecting Beer Mats, Ian Calvert, a British collector, describes these early mats as being "plain, printed on one side only, and of one color." They were about a fifth of an inch thick and 4.2 inches wide. It may not sound like much, but Sputh’s coasters represented a large forward step in beer drinking technology.
Nineteenth-century German beer drinkers, which is to say just about everybody, drank from ceramic beer krugs (what Americans call "steins"). The wealthy used krugs that were sometimes made of porcelain and tended to be quite ornate, with painted scenes or decoration around the sides. The fancy krugs were also fitted with metal lids on hinges. You raised the lid with a thumb lever to take a drink and lowered it again to keep out dust and insects. Those who didn’t have a lid sometimes used felt sheets, according to Calvert, which were embroidered or printed with various labels. The sheets could also be used to wipe up spills or handle condensation. Drinkers sometimes sat their krugs on ceramic coasters as an added line of protection beneath the drink, and in the late 1800s, they began to use cardboard coasters for the same reason.
But there were problems with this 19th century beer equipment. Ceramic coasters were heavy and could break. Fancy krugs, while beautiful, were expensive. The felt didn’t hold up well if it got wet, nor did the cardboard. The pulpboard coasters — or "bierdeckel" as they’re known in German — on the other hand, were inexpensive, absorbent, and durable when damp. Although most often seen under a beer, they offered a cheap, disposable solution for both the lid and the coaster — in fact, the word "deckel" actually means "lid" in German. What’s more, you could print on the pulpboard coaster, which made it perfect for advertising.
At the time of Sputh’s invention, the Katz company, which then worked in lumber and paper, was operated by a man named Casimir Otto Katz. He had other business ventures, including a brewery in the city of Metz, France. Sensing an opportunity, Katz began production of his own coasters in 1903 in Weisenbach. In 1909, he went all in on the coaster idea, and brought about the first of what would be many Katz-driven improvements to the way coasters are produced. The Weisenbach factory was completely overhauled. Instead of using molds, it punched coasters out of sheets of what they called "wet machine board." According to the company’s own history, the plant was producing 15,000 coasters a day in 1919.
The factory was producing 15,000 coasters a day in 1919, and double that by 1930.
In 1930, the factory upgraded again, and production doubled. Then it halted completely. During World War II, the company ceased coaster production. It wouldn’t begin exporting again until 1948.
In an economy of scale like coaster beer coasters, "profit" means slinging as many as possible, and throughout the 20th century, the Katz company reduced competition by buying up smaller, regional operations around the world, including several in the United States, which explains its huge market share today. It also continued to invest in its Weisenbach plant in the pursuit of ever more efficient coaster production.
Lumber has long served as the industrial backbone of the Black Forest, and today the forests here are heavily managed for logging. Underbrush and smaller trees are routinely cleared out to prevent fire and to allow for larger trees to continue maturing. The lumber used at the factory is made up of these selectively cleared smaller trees, and all come from within 125 miles of Weisenbach.
On a normal work day, the noise at the factory can reach 100 decibels, or roughly as loud as a low-flying helicopter. The main noise culprit is a debarker, which sits just inside from the delivery area. The logs are cut into uniform length before they enter the debarker, which is sort of like an enormous washing machine. It tumbles the logs until the bark comes off. They stop it every half hour to take out the sand and dirt that emerges when the logs shed their protective layer. It smells not of machinery, but of a Home Depot garden center. Kurt, the foreman, says the bark is sold for mulch.
From there, the logs are loaded onto a conveyer belt which takes them, eventually, to a grinding machine. The machine is three stories high but only about 12 feet wide. The logs go in at the top and come out the bottom, pulverized. Water is added, and the mixture goes underground into a river of pulp that flows beneath the factory. It’s offwhite, viscous, and lumpy, like a huge vat of oatmeal.
The pulp is then run through something called a Fourdrinier Machine, which is pretty standard for paper production. In this case, workers pump the pulp onto a flat conveyor belt. It’s 89 percent water, but is soon pressed by heavy rollers and heated until it’s the consistency we’re familiar with. During the drying process, the pulp board is glued to thin sheets of white paper on both sides, which are better suited to printing than the coarse pulp mixture that makes up the majority of the board. The glue is a derivative of wheat starch. At capacity, the factory can produce 100 meters of pulp board, about two meters wide, per minute.
Forklifts zip around, ferrying stacks of sheets into the next room, where they’re fed into a delivery-van-sized printing machine.
At the end of the Fourdrinier Machine, the board is cut into square sheets about the size and of a science fair backdrop. Forklifts zip around, ferrying stacks of sheets into the next room, where they’re fed into one of the factory’s two delivery-van-sized printing machines. Each printed sheet contains about 88 coasters depending on whether the coasters are square, circular, or some other shape.
The factory can produce five million to seven million coasters per day. The high volume speaks to the thin margins that exist in today’s paper industry, and after years of buying up its competition, Katz almost went bankrupt in 2009, only to be saved by Kohler, the global paper conglomerate. The parent company cut costs by saving energy, installing a heat retention system above the Fourdrinier Machine, among other measures. Some of the conveyer belts look pretty new as well, such as the one carrying sheets of printed coasters to the cutting machine and the belts that connect the cutting machine to the system that shrink wraps the coasters in stacks of anywhere from 50 to 125.
When I’m there, the printers are working on coasters for the Hatz brewery, in nearby Karlsruhe. (Coasters sent stateside are printed in the U.S.) Hatz’s coaster has a simple design: dark green with a golden crown. It’s not something that would really turn heads. A company rep tells me that in Germany, the breweries make them because restaurants demand them, whereas in the U.S., restaurants take advantage of the coaster as a space for their own advertising. "Every [American] restaurant wants its own coaster," he says.
It’s an interesting observation about the two countries’ respective beer cultures. In Germany, restaurants tend to have one beer on tap, and the restaurants advertise that beer as a way to set them apart from other establishments. In the U.S., the more beer you have on tap, the better, so the bars and restaurants themselves advertise with coasters.
As advertising goes, you could do worse than a coaster. They start at about 112 euros for 5,000. The price varies by the intricacy of the design, whether it’s a photo or a simple label. I ask Katz’s print manager, a grey-haired man named Ralf Korz, if he has a favorite, if there are any iconic coasters. He thinks about it for a moment, says nobody has ever asked before, and then snaps his fingers. "Salitos!" he says.
The factory happens to have some Salitos coasters on hand. They feature a photo of a bottle of the tequila-flavored beer set against a background of Mexican sugar skulls in two shades of green. The skulls’ eyes are made of a green foil that twinkles in the light.These, I’m told, have all the bells and whistles: a photo, multiple colors, foil inlay. The company reps struggle to put a price on them. It’s hard when they’re made in the thousands, but whatever it is, it’s a fraction of the cost of the beer they support.
So if you ever find your Salitos coaster, your one-in-however-billion, don’t feel bad about slipping it into your back pocket to display on your coffee table back home. That’s one of the reasons they’re there.