Gambrinus, often called the “King of Beer”, has a complex, confusing, and somewhat controversial history. Though he has been erroneously referred to as a saint or a god, the Gambrinus of legend has seldom been ascribed the powers of a deity or holy being. The now familiar image of ermine cloak and crown-wearing beer king – sitting astride a beer barrel, sword in one hand and frothing goblet in the other – was first popularized in mid-19th century Europe. However, the story of the monarch of malt is several centuries older than that, and his name has its origins in ancient mythology.
The name Gambrinus may have its earliest origins in The Germania, a history of Germanic tribes, written about 98 AD by Roman historian Tacitus. One of the tribes identified in the work was named ‘Gambrivii’. The German Gambrivious tribe was referred to again in Greek scientist Strabo’s work Georgraphia from the early first century.
In 1498, Italian monk Annius of Viterbo, used names of tribes identified by Tacitus, in his book Antiquitatum Variarum. Annius invented a list of long lost German kings, one of which was named “Gambrivius”. Thus, a derivation of the name Gambrinus was first identified as being kingly.
Fast forward to the early 16th century, when German historian Johannes Aventinus writes in his Annales Bojorum (History of Bavaria) of King Gambrivius. According to Aventinus, Gambrivius became the lover of Egyptian goddess Isis, who showed him how to brew beer.
In 1543, German fabulist Burkard Waldis composed poems about the first twelve kings of the German nation, including Gambrivius Künig of Brabant/Flanders. The poem, which was included in an illustrated broadside depicting a hop-crowned king with barley behind him, identifies King Gambrivius as the first brewer of beer.
Victor Coremans, a Belgian journalist and historian, authored an article in 1842 that examined the history of the mythical king Gambrivius. Based on some rather dubious reasoning, Coremans was the first to suggest that brewing king was based upon John I, the Duke of Brabant (c. 1252-1294). An alternate theory suggested that Gambrinus was based on John the Fearless, the Duke of Burgundy (1371-1419). Whether the legend was actually based on historical European noblemen from the Middle Ages or simply invented by 19th century scribes, it almost does not matter. The connection became popularized over the next century as Gambrinus’ legend continued to grow. By the middle of the 19th century, even the king’s name changed from “Gambrivius” to “Gambrinus”.
Countless stories, poems, and songs were written throughout Europe throughout the 19th century about Gambrinus and his relationship to beer. During the mid-1800s, European breweries were often decorated with statues and images of Gambrinus. Quite naturally, when German immigrants settled in the United States in the mid-to-late 1800s and opened breweries, they brought that tradition with them. Dozens of breweries constructed in the late 19th century American breweries, including Joseph Stoeckle’s Diamond State Brewery in Wilmington, Delaware, were adorned with the legendary King Gambrinus.
Gambrinus Day is celebrated on April 11 each year by beer drinkers worldwide.
THE BEERDRINKER’S SONG
Gambrinus was a gallant king–
Reigned once in Flanders old,
He was the man invented beer
As I’ve been often told.
Of malt and hops he brewed his beer
And made it strong and good,
And some of it he bottled up
And some he kept in wood.
The golden crown upon his head,
The beer jug in his hand,
Beerdrinkers, see before ye here
Your benefactor stand.
Beerlovers, paint him on your shields,
Upon your beerpots paint —
‘Twere well a pope did never worse
Than make Gambrinus Saint.
And now fill every man his pot
Till the foam overflows;
No higher praise asks the good old king
Than froth upon the nose.
Bacchus I’ll honor while I live
And while I live love wine,
But still I’ll hold th’ old Flanders king
And beerjug more divine.
While I have wine night’s darkest shades
To me are full moonlight
But keep my beerpot filled all day
And I’ll sleep sound all night.
So blessings on th’ old Flanders king,
And blessings on his beer,
And curse upon the tax on malt,
That makes good drink so dear.
-by James Henry, M.D., written while walking from Schopfheim to Gersbach in the Black Forest (Baden), October 6, 1854