That Gambrinus Life

A short study of the life and times of Gambrinus, the legendary ‘King of Beer’, and one of the brews that proudly bears his name.

All rise for the ‘King of Beer’!

Never far-removed from a barrel of beer or overflowing mug, the legendary King Gambrinus has personified the stereotypical beer lover for over half a millennium.

His mythical character has been depicted in many ways, though typically as a stout, jolly gentleman with rosy cheeks sporting a full beard and a crown. Oftentimes, he is draped in an ermine cloak or wielding a sword in one hand, counterbalanced by a frothing mug in the other. In most cases, the images suggest that he is thoroughly enjoying himself.

While this familiar image was first popularised in mid 19th century Europe, the monarch of malt’s history goes back much further…

Earliest Origins

The name Gambrinus was first mentioned in The Germania, a study of Germanic tribes compiled by a Roman historian around 98 BC. One of the tribes identified was named Gambrivii. This tribe was also spoken of in the works of 1st century Greek scientist Strabo, who used the name Gambrivious.

In 1498, an Italian monk felt compelled to write a book that required him to invent a list of long-forgotten Germanic kings. Turning to The Germania for inspiration, he called one of them Gambrivius ˗ the name’s first association with royalty.

Its first association with beer appears to have been made at the dawn of the 16th century. In the History of Bavaria, German historian and author Johannes Aventinus tells of a Tunic-clad king named Gambrivius who was romantically involved with the Egyptian goddess Isis. Of all the wisdoms she parted on him during their little dance, those related to brewing beer proved particularly welcome.

The legend of the beer king was further advanced in 1543 by a German fabulist who wrote a series of poems about the first 12 kings of the German nation. A certain Gambrivius, who had supposedly reigned as King of Brabant & Flanders, was included. In the poem dedicated to his legacy, King Gambrivius is recognised as the first brewer of beer. An accompanying illustration portrays a hop-crowned king with a bale of barley behind him.

A Star is Born

Let us fast-forward to 1842, when the mythical King Gambrivius was closely examined in a Belgian newspaper article. Based on some rather dubious reasoning, it was suggested that the beer king was based on John I, Duke of Brabant.

Regarded as a strong, skilled warrior and bon-vivant during the second half of the 13th century, the Duke was also praised for his drinking abilities. A popular ruler in his day, he is said to have been a beer lover who spent much of his time at public taverns. Apparently, John of Brabant even had the habit of addressing his troops from the top of a pile of beer barrels!

The aforementioned article argued that Gambrivius was, in all likelihood, an amalgam of Jan Primus (John the First). An alternative theory put forth not long after claimed that the legendary beer king was actually based on Jean sans Peur (John the Fearless), Duke of Burgundy, credited by some as the inventor of hopped beer.

The vague connection to these European noblemen from the Middle Ages acted as a catalyst to continental fame. The King’s name was adjusted to Gambrinus somewhere around 1850 and his reputation as the “patron saint of beer” dominated popular culture.

Countless stories, poems, and songs ˗ in various European languages ˗ were written about Gambrinus and his relationship with beer during the latter half of the 19th century. It also became common to decorate breweries with images and statues of His Excellency.

Gambrinus and the Brussels Guild of Brewers

One popular tale of this era concerned the appointment of Jan Primus, Duke of Brabant, as the “King”, or president, of the Brussels Guild of Brewers.

At one point or another during the Duke’s adult years, the brewers of Brussels were in the market for an honorary leader. A contest was organised to determine who was worthy of this position. Any man capable of moving a beer barrel to a point located two stones’ throws away from its original spot would be granted the prestige.

Among those who registered themselves was Jan Primus. With obvious joy, he observed the futile attempts of his competitors to shift the barrel. When his turn came, he had his servant beat a spigot into the bunghole and proceeded to lie down underneath the barrel. He then opened the tap and drank until the barrel was empty. Having done this, he effortlessly carried the barrel to the designated point.

Impressed by the Duke’s shrewdness, not to mention his drinking skills, the brewers of Brussels immediately pronounced Jan Primus their leader. By doing so, he was granted the title ‘King of Beer’.

Gambrinus and the Devil

The most fantastical, and elaborate, story about the patron saint of beer was published in a collection of short stories titled Contes du roi Cambrinus (The Stories of King Gambrinus) in 1874.

It tells of the young Gambrinus, a handsome but insolvent glassblower’s assistant, and his affections for his employer’s daughter ˗ the beautiful Flandrine. She, on the other hand, wants nothing to do with him; not before he has gained some status in life, in any case.

Heartbroken, Gambrinus leaves town and travels around aimlessly with little else than the clothes on his back and his violin. It becomes apparent that the young vagrant has a real talent for music and, within no time, his fame spreads across the Low Countries.

Delighted to be able to claim association with a celebrity, the townspeople implore Gambrinus to come home. The young musician returns to his hometown and gives a marvellous performance on the town square. Then he spots Flandrine in the crowd and all goes pear-shaped. The sight of her throws him completely off balance and his music becomes atrocious to the ears. So abysmal, in fact, that the crowd goes mad and starts to riot.

The Hunter

To make matters worse, poor Gambrinus is charged with inciting the riot and thrown into jail. There, he comes to the conclusion that his life is worthless and that he may as well hang himself. Just as he is preparing to do so, Lucifer ˗ dressed as a hunter ˗ pays Gambrinus a visit in his cell. In exchange for his soul in 30 years’ time, the great deceiver promises to take away our hero’s sorrows.

Gambrinus professes he would give up everything and anything for Flandrine to fall in love with him. The Devil, in turn, is forced to admit that love is the one thing beyond his control. What he can do is help the young lad forget all about his crush. A contract is signed, after which Gambrinus is released from jail and turns to gambling.

This new passion makes him extremely wealthy but the memory of Flandrine lingers. He decides to look her up and flaunt his newfound wealth but she rejects him once again, remarking that although he may be rich, he was still a nobody. Nothing less than a king, in the worst case a duke, would do for her.

Round 2

Shortly after leaving his hometown in shame for the second time, the downtrodden Gambrinus bumps into his old acquaintance the hunter. This time round he begs for an antidote more potent than gambling. Intent on fulfilling his part of the bargain, the Devil teaches him how to brew beer.

At the end of his speedy apprenticeship, Gambrinus is also given seeds to grow hops. Last but not least, he is gifted a chime capable of producing such wonderful music that nobody is able to withstand the temptation to dance to its melody.

The Taste of Vindication

Gambrinus subsequently returns to his hometown, builds a brewery, starts growing hops, and practices on his chime. When his first brew is done he invites all the townsfolk to the market square for a taste. At first, the bitter drink is not to their liking and the young brewer is ridiculed. At this moment, he starts playing his chime, forcing everybody to dance. After several hours of continuous jigging and jiving, the music stops and the crowd rushes to the barrels of beer to quench their thirst.

This time round, it tastes better with each swig. It does not take long for Gambrinus’ delicious brew to gain widespread acclaim. The King of the Netherlands even goes so far as to reward the young brewer’s outstanding contribution to the public good with a title. This is how the former glassblower’s assistant became the Duke of Brabant.

Whilst observing her former suitor move in the highest circles of society, Flandrine suddenly comes to the realisation that she has had feelings for Gambrinus all along. She waits for the Duke to ask her hand a third time; when this does not occur, she decides to pay him a visit instead. Flandrine approaches him and extends her hand but Gambrinus does not recognise her. The good man assumes she is just another person who would like to try his delicious beer. And so he hands her a mug and turns away. Chapter closed.

One Last Showdown

Thirty years on, Gambrinus is still living the good life when Lucifer comes back to collect his soul. Upon seeing his debtor approach, the permanently tipsy Duke decides to welcome him with a tune from his chime. As it turns out, not even the Evil One himself is immune to its alluring sounds. After a few hours of dancing, he cannot take any more and begs Gambrinus to put an end to the torture. If the Duke promises not to play another note, the contract on his soul will be torn up on the spot.

Gambrinus happily obliges and sends the Devil on his way with a barrel of beer, which is emptied in one humongous gulp. In a parting message, the Duke is warned that the debt would be settled at the end of his natural life.

It is not until 100 years later that word of the Duke’s passing reaches Hell. Eager to collect his prize, Lucifer arrives at the site of Gambrinus’ death only to find there is no body. There is, however, a big barrel of beer waiting for him. The Devil has no choice but to accept that the King of Beer’s soul will never be his.

The Czech Gambrinus

Much like the thirteenth-century Brussels Guild of Brewers, a host of modern-day breweries around Europe and the U.S. have chosen the patron saint of beer as their champion. For instance, one of my preferred Dutch beers is called Hertog Jan (Duke John) ˗ a direct reference to the King of Beer also reflected in the company logo. In the Czech Republic, now officially renamed Czechia, the Duke’s disciples drink Gambrinus beer.

Now, the Czechs drink a fair amount of beer to begin with; more than any other nation on earth, in fact. An average of over 150 litres is consumed per adult each year and, as of 2023, the country is the world’s fifth largest exporter of beer. Despite having a population of under 11 million, there are more than 40 industrial and roughly 70 small- to medium-sized family breweries operational in Czechia. Gambrinus is one of the major players on the local market.

The King’s Older Brother

The Gambrinus brand was established in 1869 under the banner of the Pilsner Urquell Brewery in the city of Plzeň. The brewery was the first on earth to dedicate itself to the production of pilsner-style beer in 1842.

Prepared with a bottom-fermenting yeast that cultivates a golden, refreshing brew, Pilsner Urquell was far more drinkable than the stronger, top-fermented ales of the day. The pilsner-style became so popular in Czechia that local breweries generally refrained from concerning themselves with any alternatives up until quite recently.

While the original pilsner is arguably still the most beloved beer in the country, Pilsner Urquell is actually outsold by its cheaper, less potent little brother. As a matter of fact, I unwittingly made my own personal contribution to this trend not long ago.

In the Company of Royalty

In March 2024, having already visited Dresden and Bautzen together, my travel companion Mitko and I spent the better part of a sunny Wednesday afternoon driving through Czechia. That is to say, Mitko was behind the wheel and I was riding shotgun. We were headed to Bratislava and expected to be en route for six hours.

About 90 minutes after setting off from Bautzen we made our first stop of the day in the village of Vlkava. By that point, we were already deep into Czech territory and the local mini market stocked all kinds of products I had never seen before. One I did recognise, however, was Gambrinus. Although it was barely 11:30 in the morning, I felt inspired to have one with my salami and cheese sandwiches ˗ and another one for the road. Mitko applauded, and envied, this decision.

Old Accomplices

It was not the first time we had found ourselves in Czechia together. On the previous occasion, in the summer of 2016, we met up in Prague for the wedding of two old friends ˗ a Czech bride and a Bulgarian groom, both of whom had done a Master’s degree in my hometown. It was the bride that had introduced Mitko to Gambrinus.

If I remember correctly, this occurred during our first assembly in Czechia in the autumn of 2012. On a night out in Prague, Mitko has happily hoisting Pilsner Urquells and singing their praises. The bride ˗ or girlfriend, at the time ˗ joined our group at a pub and asked Mitko what he was drinking. Upon hearing his response, she started laughing and passed him the mug of Gambrinus she had ordered on her way in. “Try that.”

Gambrinus Patron 12

Mitko has been a Gambrinus guy ever since, and I cannot blame him. The 0.5 litre bottles of Gambrinus Patron 12 that I picked up in Vlkava tasted formidable indeed! The malty palate, laced with floral bitterness, and mild mouthfeel were exactly what I have come to expect of an everyday Czech pilsner ˗ light, crisp, and easily sessionable. When we pulled over to fill up the fuel tank approximately 120 km further south, I could not resist grabbing myself another one.

0.5 litre bottle (right) and 0.5 litre can (left) of Gambrinus Patron 12
0.5 litre bottle and 0.5 litre can of Gambrinus Patron 12

Czech beers are traditionally categorised according to the Balling scale, a measurement of the concentration of dissolved solids ˗ mainly sugars ˗ expressed in degrees. A higher degree is equal to more sugar, which in turn initiates a rise in alcoholic content and the cultivation of stronger, sweeter flavours.

The majority of Czech pilsners are either 10 or 12 degrees, the equivalent of roughly 4% and 5% ABV respectively; in the case of the Gambrinus Patron 12, we are talking 5.2%.

A Patron on my Shoulder

By the time we got stuck in traffic on the ring road encircling Brno it was mid-afternoon and I was already feeling agreeably light-headed. When ˗ for the umpteenth time since crossing the border ˗ our navigation system determined we were on a toll road, I decided to investigate. We had not passed through a toll booth all day, which suddenly struck me as odd.

Not in this day and age! A quick online query revealed that our movements were being tracked by hundreds of roadside cameras. Hence, we were required to purchase an online vignette for the duration of our travels in Czechia. Failing to do so before leaving the country could potentially result in a hefty fine. Moreover, it became clear that a similar form of road taxation is upheld in Slovakia.

Somewhere south of Brno, less than 50 km from the Slovakian border, we once again pulled over at a gas station. While the designated driver took care of the vignettes for both Czechia and Slovakia, I cracked open my fourth Gambrinus Patron 12.

Keeping the Legacy Alive and Well

We arrived at our “Aparhotel” in Bratislava around 16:30. At that stage, I was as tipsy as the King of Beer had been for much of his legendary existence and Mitko was eager to catch up. Slovakia is one of the largest export markets for Czech beer producers so there was no shortage of Gambrinus around us.

Over the course of the next few days, we did our utmost to honour the King of Beer’s legacy. Although my dedication to that specific objection has wavered since returning to The Netherlands, where a propensity toward daytime drinking is considered to be a repulsive trait, I am reassured by the fact that I struggle to recall any of my past crushes. Barring any major setbacks, and with Gambrinus’ guidance, I too shall turn into a barrel one fine day.

Alternative Gambrinus Logo

By Christopher Andel

Born in Bangkok to a Dutch father and German mother, Christopher has spent much of his life pedalling back and forth between Europe and South East Asia. A true ‘Jack of all trades’, he has worked as an environmental consultant, language tutor, and roadie for the Chippendales, just to name a few. He currently resides in the Netherlands and is patiently plotting a return to greener pastures.

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