Compiled by Mike Retzlaff
Breweries bear his name, praises are sung to him in drinking songs; sayings have grown up around him. He sits atop the old Falstaff Brewery in Mid-City, New Orleans! Even the German Bahn AG once named an Inter-City train from Hamburg to Munich after him.
But who really was Gambrinus?
In the 16th Century, Burkart Waldis answered this question and the story spread; Gambrinus learned the art of brewing directly from the Egyptian sun goddess Isis. But despite all of the historic effort – a final assessment of the figure of Gambrinus is still not possible. Of the many theories which describe the figure of Gambrinus, often as the patron saint of brewers, five emerge as plausible.
1. Gambrinus was said to have been a Paladin, an elite Knight and faithful follower of Charles the Great. (Charlemagne)
2. It is believed that John I, Jan Primus, Duke of Brabant was this character. He was said to be a huge drinker before the Lord, composed 94 songs of love and fathered as many children. His name Jan Primus could have been a corruption of Gambrinus.
3. King Gambriviern, through a clerical error, became Gambrinus. He went to rule residents of a Northern German area. They were the Gambrivians.
4. The Celtic word Camba, brew vessel, led to the designation Cambarius, the brewer. Hence the name could have morphed into Gambrinus.
5. Marburger, a linguist, derives Gambrinus Ganbrinus from the Latin “Ganea birrinus” (the end of drinking in a tavern) or “gáneae birrinus” (who drinks in a tavern).
All the explanations seem plausible, and don’t refute the others. Regrettable as it is: Even intensive efforts have found darkness around the figure of Gambrinus; all light seems to be shed. The brewing industry has to live with the fact that they do not know whether her patron saint of history was a person or a mere clerical error.
Another version of the legend . . .
The Legend of King Gambrinus, the Beer King who can drink this beer stein full of beer in one draft is sure to earn Gambrinus’s approval and sheer delight. It was his imperviousness to drink which prompted brewers to appoint him as their patron many centuries ago.
How it happened is related in the following legend:
Around the year 1100, the brewers of Brussels deliberated which strong and courageous man should be their leader. They organized a contest, at which a large beer barrel was placed on the ground. The one who could carry it to a spot two stone’s throws away would become their champion and patron.
Among many who registered for the contest was a Duke from Brabant, whose name was Jan Primus, a man of great strength and considerable intellect. With obvious joy, he followed the futile efforts of the numerous competitors to move the beer barrel. When his turn came, he ordered the servant to beat a spigot into the bunghole. He then lay down under the barrel, opened the tap and drank until the barrel was empty. Having done this, he carried the barrel effortlessly to the winning post.
On the strength of this clever idea, the brewers of Brussels appointed him as their honorary leader. From then on he was the patron of brewers and innkeepers and Jan Primus became Gambrinus, the King of Beer.
Historical Information on Gambrinus:
There was indeed a Duke of Brabant (the first Duke) named Jan Primus (1251-1295). Jan was born in the region of Burgundy and ruled what is now mostly Belgium. Also, there is a brewery named after the “king of beer” in Pilsen, Bohemia in the Czech Republic. The Gambrinus brewery was founded in 1869 and still brews beer today.
Translation from German
“My name is Gambrinus, King of Flanders and Brabant. I made malt out of barley and was the first to conceive beer. So the brewers can proudly proclaim that it was a King who invented Beer!”