Restore the King

Delaware's Gambrinus Statue

Gambrinus Legend

By on May 17, 2016

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 is rooted in ancient mythology.

"Gambrivius", c. 1526 painting (German Brewing Museum, Munich)
“Gambrivius” painting (origin unknown)

The name Gambrinus has his earliest origins in The Germania, the history of Germanic tribes written by  Roman historian Tacitus in about 98 CE. One of the tribes Tacitus identified in the work was named ‘Gambrivii’.

The German tribe was referred to again by Greek scientist Strabo in the early first century in his Georgraphia. He called the people the Gambrivious.

Fast forward 1300 years to 1498. In that year, 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.

Map of Germania by Abraham Ortelius, 1595

The king’s name appears to have first become associated with beer in the early 16th century. German historian and author Johannes Aventinus in his Annales Bojorum (History of Bavaria) wrote a tale of a Tunic king, Gambrivius, who was a lover of Egyptian goddess Isis. It was she who showed the monarch how to brew beer.

The beer king legend was further advanced in 1543 by Burkard Waldis. The German fabilist composed poems about the first twelve kings of the German nation, including Gambrivius Künig of Brabant and Flanders. The poem, which was included in an illustrated broadside depicting a hop-crowned king with barley behind him, cited King Gambrivius as the first brewer of beer.

"Gampar" broadside by Nikolaus Stör, c. 1543
“Gambrivius Künig” broadside, 1543

Victor Coremans, a Belgian journalist and historian, authored an 1842 article 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 later put forth 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 doesn’t matter. The connection became popularized over the next century as Gambrinus’ legend continued to grow. By the mid-19th century, the king’s name changed from “Gambrivius” to “Gambrinus”.

Goblet relief by Anton Kothgasser, c. 1835
Goblet relief by Anton Kothgasser, c. 1835

Countless stories, poems, and songs were written throughout Europe throughout the 19th century about Gambrinus and his relationship with beer. During the mid-1800s, European breweries were often decorated with statues and images of Gambrinus; he had become the popular symbol of European brewing and perhaps one of the earliest uses of a character in product advertising.

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, the Patron Saint of Beer" by E. Seitz, 1858
“Gambrinus, the Patron Saint of Beer” by E. Seitz, 1858

Gambrinus Day is celebrated on April 11 each year by beer drinkers worldwide.

Eckert & Winter's Bock Beer poster, c. 1871
Eckert & Winter’s Bock Beer poster, New York City, c. 1871


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