Thanks to beers like Tricerahops and Total Domination, you may have heard of the goddess Ninkasi thanks to Ninkasi Brewing, but have you heard of the real king of beers, Gambrinus?
Though he’s a legendary figure in Europe, Gambrinus is not a god like Ninkasi and he’s not even a patron saint, in the strictly canonical legal sense, though he is that in spirit. Gambrinus is almost like the Santa Claus of beer. He has many stories attributed to him, from bringing beer to Earth to making crops grow and he has many origin stories.
In one story, Gambrinus was a young glassblower in Flanders and he sold his soul to the devil after a noble woman rejected him. In return the devil taught him to make beer so he could forget the woman. After that, young Gambrinus spreads beer far and wide to Europe and becomes a noble, the duke of Brabant and Count of Flanders, but he prefers the title that the villagers have given him: the king of beer.
In a Belgian legend, the brewers of Brussels couldn’t decide on who to pick as their leader, and so they organized a contest to see who could carry a large beer barrel to a spot in the distance. Whoever did so would become their head brewer. A duke from Brabent named Jan Primus entered the contest and, rather than carry the full barrel like everyone else who had failed, he put a spigot into the bunghole, lied under the barrel and drank until it was empty and then carried the barrel to the finish line with no trouble.
In Germany, Gambrinus is also the mythic German king Gambrivius, the seventh-generation descendant of Noah who lived during the thirteenth dynasty of egypt and was the paramour of Isis, the goddess of nature, magic, and motherhood and it’s from the Egyptian god Osiris that he learns brewing and brings it to mortals.
However, like many legendary figures such as our own presidential vampire slayer Abraham Lincoln, the real origins behind the legend of Gambrinus are murky. The name first appears in Western Europe during the Middle Ages and has been associated with two real people.
The person most often associated with Gambrinus is the aforementioned John Primus, also known as John 1, Duke of Brabant, who lived from around 1251 to 1295. Brabant was a wealthy beer making state in the Holy Roman Empire that encompassed Brussels, Germany and Belgium. According to legend he was a relative Prince Charming, and a model for how all princes should behave, as well as being gifted in jousting and producing bastard children.
John Primus was a hero to the people and because of that the duke of Brabant may have been the inspiration for Gambrinus. John Primus also laid the foundation for the beer industry by allowing deputy mayors of Brussels to grant licenses for brewing and selling and legend has it that he drank 72 quarts of beer over a three day feast.
Though it’s speculative, Gambrinus’ name may be a mispronounciation of John Primus, since John in Dutch is Jan and in French it’s Jean and Yan or Jean Primus sounds an awful lot like Gambrinus.
The second person that may have inspired Gambrinus is John 2, Duke of Burgundy, also known as John the Fearless, who lived from 1371 to 1419. Burgundy, which mostly corresponds to modern day Burgundy, France, was also known for hits beer production and it was John the Fearless who introduced and legalized hops within the county of Flanders, where beer was still being brewed without it and ingredients in beer were highly regulated, though some attribute the introduction of hops to Primus.
In 1405, after taking over the rule of the County of Flanders, John 2 also created the Order of the Hop as an award of merit and those in the order celebrated by drinking beer. The Order of the Hop was resurrected in 1971 by the International Hop Growers Bureau to honour great acchievers in the hop industry.
John the Fearless’ tie to the Gambrinus name is speculative but, he was married in 1385 in the beer city of Cambrai which may have also been known as Gambrivium in Latin, though Hamburg also claims that name.
So, when you see Budweiser calling themselves the king of beers, but you can ignore theirs sales numbers and terrible beer and bite your thumb at them. All hail king Gambrinus, the true king of beer.