Gambrinus: Man, Myth, Legend

If you brew your own ales and lagers at home or are enthused by the allure of craft beer, chances are you have come across King Gambrinus in your sudsy journeys. Shrouded in myth and legend, Gambrinus has become the personification of beer for brewers and beer lovers across the world. April 11 is designated as King Gambrinus’ birthday, and although the accuracy of this date can be challenged, it is a call for celebration nonetheless.

To many Gambrinus is but a fabled figure who adorns the title of the patron saint of brewers. Never seen far from a barrel of beer or overflowing mug, Gambrinus is depicted in many ways, but typically a stout, jolly gentlemen with long locks, rosy cheeks and a crown to top it all off.

According to some legends, Gambrinus learned the art of brewing after trading his soul to the devil in hopes of forgetting the memory of his unobtainable love. At first, his fellow townspeople did not respond well to the newfound hopped-malt beverage, gawking at its strength and bitterness.

To win over the crowds, Gambrinus simply started playing his chimes, leading the townspeople to dance for hours, maybe days, on end. When the music finally ceased, the townspeople were anxious to fill their mugs with Gambrinus’ hoppy goodness. It was at this moment Gambrinus and his beer became that of legend.

There is compelling evidence that King Gambrinus may have been an actual person, with two historical figures fitting the mold. Jan Primus, a Burgundian duke in the 13th century, was the “king” (president) of the Brussels Guild of Brewers. Regarded as a skilled warrior and bon vivant, Jan Primus was also praised for his beer-drinking abilities.

There’s also Jean sans Peur (John the Fearless), a cup bearer of Charlemagne in the late 14th and early 15th Centuries. Supposedly carrying the name “Gambrinus,” Jean sans Peur is sometimes distinguished as the inventor of hopped beer, but most of his history is tied up in political and courtly affairs.

Whether you believe in the mythical Gambrinus who struck a deal with the devil, or one of the alleged men who inspired the mythical figure, gather your friends and make merry in the name of the late and great King Gambrinus…and be sure you have plenty of beer for all!

Sources: Tasting Beer & Radical Brewing by Randy Mosher; The Oxford Companion to Beer by Garrett Oliver et al; SteinCollectors.org

Photo © Luke J. Rosynek

Homebrewers Association
Homebrewers Association