Anjan Rangaraj cannot remember a time when he wasn’t collecting things. He was six when he began collecting marbles and soon ran out of space to store them. Pigeons followed next, and despite the constraints of a small house, he managed to house at least 80 on his balcony. This was followed by thousands of matchboxes. As Rangaraj grew older, he turned his attention to collecting and restoring vintage and classic motorcycles, about 20 of which he still possesses. He also has a 5000-strong collection of LPs, and today, the founder and CEO of the Chennai-based Catalyst Properties is the owner of close to a thousand beer steins, some encapsulating bits of history.
The word stein is an abbreviation of steinzeug, which means stoneware in German – the stone was used to make beer mugs before the introduction of glass. Rangaraj first chanced upon them at a flea market in Berlin almost a decade ago. He was immediately drawn to them and picked up close to 30 of them at one go. “I enjoy my beer,” says Rangaraj with a chuckle, when asked about what drew him to steins. “It’s good to use a nice stein or tankard to drink your beer, but then it became about the design, the craftsmanship and the history behind the different mugs.”
After his first impulse buys, Rangaraj focussed on curating his collection. “There is a lot of information available on the internet,” he says, “and the world of collectors shares information on the collections they have there. And then you have people who actually help you to assess what you have got.” Berlin, he says, is the Mecca for this, and he makes it a point to go there at least once a year and visit the flea markets, to add to his collection.
Rangaraj’s steins are made out of ceramic, fish-bone, glass, crystal, casted glass, hand-cut glass, different metals (like pewter) and various other combinations. His collection is housed in his homes in Chennai and Bengaluru. “I use them often,” he says. “I try and get different varieties of beer from the world over and serve them to my guests in these steins. They make a great conversation starter. I have even let some of my guests take the steins back home.”
The steins are often great repositories of history. Some of his steins are part of a limited edition collection that was made during WWII, for Hitler’s army. Possibly made for one of Hitler’s top admirals, one of them is a black tankard that has a propeller-driven plane on the lid, also listing all the propeller planes that Hitler had in operation during the war. Other limited edition steins include those that had been made to commemorate the opening of what are today some of the oldest breweries in the world. One of his steins depicts the history of how the city of Berlin got its name.
“I am told my oldest collection was made for the Royal House of Vienna”, he says. One of the steins dates back to around the late 1800s. Made of bone china, it is similar to the bone china cups that were translucent, so that one could see the design etched on it. “If you stare at this beer stein in the sunlight after you’ve finished your beer, you can see different paintings on it,” Rangaraj says that his oldest stein is possibly his most unassuming one, in plain white. “But when you look at it from the bottom, you really understand what it is and the craftsmanship that has gone into it. It is like a holy grail of steins.” This one cost Rangaraj around 5000 euro, but most of the steins, he says, fall within the price bracket of 100 – 1000 euro.
According to Rangaraj, the best place to start collecting steins is at a flea market. Berlin has four to five such markets. There are also several small stores that specialise in steins. “Life is a lot easier now with Whatsapp, as the dealers will often message saying they have something new. Wherever I go, the first thing I look for is a flea market,” he says. Apparently, when people bring the steins to flea markets to sell, they are well aware of the ones that are really valuable, which are invariably not displayed. “They have a list of collectors whom they contact first,” he says. Steins can also be procured at auctions, as well as from other collectors.
Rangaraj says that a lot of steins that come up for sale at flea markets are part of the collections of people who have passed away. For example, one of his possibly belonged to an old couple, who died, childless, and their house was seized by the government. That was how their collection showed up at the flea markets. Rangaraj was struck by the poignancy of the situation. “I remember asking a good friend of mine, who was with me at the market in Berlin, ‘What if, one day, my collection also ends up like this?’ Her reply was ‘Why, what’s wrong with that? Just as this collection has made you happy today and brought a smile to your face, perhaps one day your collection can do that to someone’.”