The Legend of Gambrinus, King of Beer!
By Hugh Evans
As homebrewers and beer drinkers, we may have heard the name Gambrinus, probably in the context of the Canadian malting house of the same name. But did you know that Gambrinus is actually originally the name for the mythical king of beer in many Western European folk tales? This bigger than life character is credited with all sorts of accomplishments, from the development of lager and the ability to drink entire barrels of beer in one swallow to the very invention of beer itself! Of course we know that such claims of folk heroes often do not stand up to scrutiny, but who was Gambrinus really? Hoist your pint glass, read on and let’s find out!
The actual historical figures who may serve as the basis for the mythical King Gambrinus are two medieval noblemen. The first was John I, Duke of Brabant, who lived from 1252-1294. Brabant was a Duchy just East of Flanders, and encompassed the modern city of Brussels. It was also a major beer producing area, which of course it continues to be today.
The second historical figure who may have been mythologized into Gambrinus was John the Fearless (1371-1419), Duke of Burgundy. While Burgundy was known then as now more for wine than beer, it too produced a lot of ale. More surprising, John the Fearless is credited with being influential in the introduction of hops to European brewing. Prior to the use of hops, European brewers used a collection of herbs called Gruit to provide a bitter component to beer, as well as to help stabilize it. John Duke of Burgundy appears to have encouraged brewers in his fiefdoms to switch to using hops during his reign, reinforcing a trend that was already spreading across the continent.
But how did either or both of these real noblemen become transformed into the mythological Gambrinus?
Well, as is usually the case, it was a mix of exaggerated behavior and accomplishments, with a little bit of preexisting folklore thrown in, swirled with a healthy dose of twisting of names produced over a centuries long game of “telephone”. “Gambrinus” itself may be a corruption of “Jan Primus”, which would have been John I’s official name in Latin. Given that John I was a very popular ruler (not the least for his ability to guzzle huge amounts of beer and still be a champion jouster), both with his fellow nobles but the common people as well, it only makes sense that he was fondly remembered by later generations, who slowly twisted his name linguistically into Gambrinus. This seems all the more likely due to a number of German language poems about John I which would have been recited orally, allowing for “Jan Primus” to become “Gambrinus” even more easily.
As for John the Fearless, he seems to have contributed more to the art of brewing than the myth of being able to drink legendary amounts of beer. As mentioned above, he was instrumental in the growing use of hops in European brewing. When John the Fearless inherited the County of Flanders, he founded a noble order called the Order of the Hop to further encourage the plants use. Members of the Order would raise pints to the founder, continuing to do so long after he had died, no doubt adding more and more boasts as the night wore on and the beer continued to flow.
Over the centuries, eventually people started conflating the two noble Johns into one hazy mythic figure with a legendary drinking prowess and a fundamental impact on the way beer was brewed. From there it isn’t too hard to see how the noble Gambrinus would come to be known as the King of Beer. With a few more centuries and a growing interest amongst both scholars and artists in European folklore in the 19th and 20th centuries, and any and all sundry tales became attached to Gambrinus. From being credited to inventing lager by a 19th century American blackface minstrel to being somewhat tenuously tied to ancient Egyptian deities like Osiris and Isis, Gambrinus truly is a mythological figure we can all drink to!