There are more “What to Pack” and “How to _____” guides for Pennsic prep than I can think of. People ask what they need, how much of it, how to get it there, and how to store it. Whenever someone asks me what they’ll need my list is pretty similar to everyone else’s, but I put special emphasis on 2 items. First, I tell them to bring socks. Pack 2 pair for every day you plan to be attending, then go buy a brand new pack and bring that, too. There’s no such thing as too many socks at War. The second is a cup and/or mug. There’s actually a bit of a tradition that’s sprung up amongst my social circle to gift our virgin friends with a mug for their first Pennsic to make sure they have something.
To go along with a mug, I’ve found a strap to be an absolute necessity. Whenever I leave camp I make sure I’ve got cash, ID, my site tag, and a mug on my belt, and I consider the last item to often be the most important. If you can craft leather at all, make your own. If you’re like me, pick one up from just about anyone who sells leather in the marketplace for just a few dollars.
Personally, I have a bit of what may qualify to some as a fetish for drinkware. I love good drink and I especially love imbibing it from a nice vessel. My poor wife always looks put upon as I pack at least 6 different things to drink from every summer and sometimes a little frightened as I walk the marketplace. There are just so many options to choose from there. As a result, I’ve probably put more thought than most into the pros and cons of the different options available.
I’m going to preface this with one statement: Don’t do plastic. It has a variety of wonderful attributes that make it suitable for use in the mundane world in multiple situations. Not at Pennsic. There are several camps that won’t serve you a drink in plastic, and I just don’t like it besides.
In the mundane world, glass is the most common material most people drink from, and for good reason. It insulates fairly well, cleans easily, and doesn’t retain flavors. The fact that it’s clear means that it’s easy to actually see that your vessel is clean and how much is left in it. That clarity is especially nice for drinks that form a head, like stouts, and allows you to appreciate the clarity and color of a potable before putting it to your lips. At war, I generally shy away from it.
Glass is actually quite dense and rather sturdy, but that means heavy. To cut weight, it is generally blown or formed very thin, which leaves it brittle and prone to breakage. Even thick glass is likely to chip if dropped on a hard surface. And drinking at War often leads to dropping things and possibly being dropped yourself.
If you want glassware, it can be nice to have, but I’d generally advise leaving it in camp when going on walkabout or visiting the neighbors for drinks.
Metal mugs are absolutely ubiquitous at Pennsic. They’re generally easy to find, low cost, and durable. This is what I do most of my drinking from myself, and the sort of mug I gift to noobs. But, not all metal mugs are created equally.
I suggest aluminum. It’s light weight and can take a beating while being fairly easy to clean. Stainless steel is another good option, but tends to be more expensive and a good bit heavier.
I suggest staying away from copper, which seems to have become more popular over the last few years. It can make your drink taste like someone dropped a penny into it.
BEWARE PEWTER MUGS! These can often be found cheap at garage sales and flea markets and will often seem like a wonderful deal, but one must be very careful. A lot of these types of mugs were meant to be display pieces and aren’t considered food safe. If there are no labels on them, I’d suggest staying away. A best case scenario is that you have a cup that rusts, and you really don’t want to drink that. The flavor of beer does not benefit from added iron. Check the label. If there isn’t one and you aren’t sure of the material, don’t buy it.
After a few wars metal vessels tend to show their age. While I look at the dings, dents, and scratches as badges of honor (and sometimes shame) I understand that some don’t feel the same way. They’re also absolutely terrible for one very important thing: holding anything hot. Drinking hot coffee from such a mug is generally a mistake someone only makes once, and only if they can manage to even hold on to it without suffering some painful burns.
Wood has one, and only one, real benefit as a material for transporting liquid to your mouth; it can be gorgeous. Wooden mugs, cups, and chalices have been some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. The material is also generally a reasonable weight, but the art is what makes wood worth drinking from.
There are some significant disadvantages to wooden vessels, though. They tend to be fragile, chipping or even splitting when dropped. Additionally, they need to be finished, and that finish will often require some knowledge and maintenance. When purchasing, be sure to ask what the cup is finished with, what temperature liquids it can handle, if it can handle spirits, and how to clean it. Wood also has a tendency to retain scents and flavors, sometimes for a long time.
Ceramic and Pottery
Ceramic and pottery vessels are a wonderful option. A good one can be extremely sturdy, despite popular belief. In fact, there’s at least one potter at the Pennsic War who pulls patrons into his booth by throwing mugs to demonstrate their durability. They’re also good for both hot and cold liquids, which is a big plus. When packing, multi-function items are wonderful. They’re much like glass, but without the transparency and a bit of added strength. Particularly for small mugs (8oz or so) or tasting cups, this is a wonderful option.
As these types of vessels get larger, they suffer from two drawbacks. Which you find more significant may vary based upon your circumstances. First, larger pieces can become a bit costly. A simple 12-16 oz generally won’t break the bank, but neither will it be inexpensive. If you’d like something more decorative, the cost can increase significantly. The second issue is weight. If you’re sitting in place and having a pint or liter stein filled, you’ll likely appreciate the heft of your drink. If you’re in the woods where you’ll often lack a place to set your drink down, that weight becomes far less charming rather quickly.
A drinking horn can be a beautiful vessel. A simple polished piece can be lovely. One that’s been carved can be an absolute work of art. They’re light and pretty resilient, surviving falls with just light scratching in most cases. And they’re what most people really want to drink from at War.
BUT… there’s a reason people stopped drinking from horns, and really only used them for ceremonial occasions historically. They’re just damned impractical. Drinking from a horn is a commitment. Because of that lovely shape that fits in the hand so well, they can’t be put down until they’re empty. Need to complete a task that requires both hands? Finish your drink. Even a simple trip to the bathroom means it’s bottoms up. This can be accounted for through the use of a horn stand, usually a simple twist of iron, but that means you’ll need to carry and keep track of another item while drinking, and still requires a larger flat surface than a cup or mug would. There’s also a bit of a small learning curve involved in imbibing from a horn. The bubble that caused so much trouble when drinking from Das Boot in a certain Hollywood movie can be a messy issue. Add the curved tapered interior being a pain to clean near the bottom to all the problems associated with maintaining something made of wood and you have an absolutely terrible drinking vessel.
I drink from one anyway. Because they’re awesome and fun.
Cups carved from horn are a viable option, but suffer from similar maintenance and finishing issues as their wooden counterparts, though they’re usually lighter and less prone to breakage. It is very difficult to find larger vessels of this type, though.
Leather is lightweight. It doesn’t break when dropped. It can usually be reformed if squished. It is a great idea.
In practice, though, it doesn’t suit all needs. To begin with, leather mugs tend to be expensive and aren’t usually very large. If you find one you like, be very careful to pay attention to any instructions supplied when purchasing a leather mug. Sealants are a funny thing, and you want to make sure you take special care with it. If you crack or break through the lining (beeswax is often used, as well as a variety of other more durable modern treatments) you don’t want to drink liquid that’s been soaking into dyed leather. It just isn’t good for you. It can also be an annoyance to clean, with the exterior becoming stained or losing its shape if left wet or damp for too long.
The Skull of Your Enemy
If you can, go for it. Personally, I find they make better chamber pots than cups.
I’ve imbibed at least a few drinks from every one of these types of cup on at least a few occasions and have owned all of them except leather. Hopefully, my experience can help some other folks to make the choice that’s right for them.