As this is our 500th post on Lords of the Drinks, we wanted to do a special story. And what better than the great legend of Gambrinus, the King of Beer. You might have seen him before, as he is the fine gentleman you see in the LOTD-logo. This mythical figure was known from folklore tales all over Western Europe but, much like King Arthur, his character was probably based on a real man. Over time he became the worldwide patron saint of beer, hops, brewing and drunken fun, having many beers and bars named after him. The most famous mythical story about Gambrinus is when he gives his soul to the devil in exchange for beer and then beats him at his own sneaky game.
Man behind the myth
Before we lose ourselves in Belgian folklore tales, let’s first try to establish which man in history the legend of the King of Beer is based on. Gambrinus’ title isn’t always the same in every story, but in most he is either the Duke of Brabant (an area that covers territories in present Belgium and Holland) or King of the Netherlands. This makes John I (1252/53-1294) the top candidate. Not only does his Dutch name Jan Primus, after more than a a few beers, sound exactly like Gambrinus, John I was in fact Duke of Brabant and well-known for his love for beer. He was honorary member of the brewers guild in Brussels and after a smashing victory in the Battle of Worringen in 1288 he threw a huge beer party for his army. At this event he gave a legendary speech, while standing on a stage of beer barrels.
An alternative name is John the Fearless (1371-1419), who was Duke of Burgundy. This John was also quite fond of long drinking sessions. Plus under his reign the use of hops in beer was legalized in several areas in Belgium. Since the mythical Gambrinus is said to have introduced hops, this could be a clear indication. Although hops was already used in nearby areas before John, and all together it took about 500 years before this ingredient had found its way to all corners of “the Lowlands”.
A third candidate is a Germanic king, who is himself quite a mythical figure since there is little known about him, called Gambrivius. It was said that the Gods taught him how to brew. In the 16th century the Bavarian writer Johannes Aventinus claimed that Gambrivius was in fact Gambrinus, that he lived 1730 years BC and learned how to brew from the Egyptians, who believed their skills were given to them by their Gods. However historians already labeled this story as highly unlikely and probably we’re dealing with a piece of early German propaganda.
Nevertheless the stories about Gambrinus were known far beyond the Netherlands and Belgium, so it is possible that the myth is based on more than one actual person.
Gambrinus and the Devil
In the most popular folk tale about the King of Beer, Gambrinus is a good-looking but poor young man, who works as a glassblower’s apprentice. He falls in love with the daughter of his boss, Flandrine, but she wants nothing with him. “Not before you become a man with status.”
The heartbroken Gambrinus leaves his town in an attempt to forget Flandrine. While traveling with his violin, it turns out that he has a real talent for music. Soon enough he is well-known all over Belgium and Holland. When the people of his town hear about this famous musician from their town they are very proud of him and beg him to come back. So Gambrinus returns and gives his first concert in his hometown. He is amazing, until he spots Flandrine in the crowd and chokes. His music becomes awful and the crowd goes mad and riots. As Gambrinus is held responsible for these riots, he is thrown in jail. There he draws the conclusion that his life is worthless and it’s best to hang himself.
As he is about to commit suicide, the Devil, dressed as a hunter, visits Gambrinus in his jail cell and asks him why he is so unhappy and if he can change that in exchange for his soul in 30 years. Gambrinus says he would give everything up if Flandrine would fall in love with him. The Devil says that love is the one thing that is beyond his control but he can basically do anything else. “Well, then give me something to take my mind of her”, says Gambrinus. The Devil says he has such a thing and they sign a contract for his soul.
The next day when he gets out of jail, the young lad feels a strong urge for betting. This new passion, with the help of the devil, makes him very rich, but he still hasn’t lost his passion for Flandrine. He looks her up and says he is very rich now, but still she refuses him. “I don’t care if you have money or not. You’re still a nobody. Come back when you are a king or a duke.”
As Gambrinus leaves town depressed, he meets with the ‘hunter’ a second time. He explains how gambling could not erase his love for Flandrine and if the Devil can do anything else for him. “Sure, you see those plants over there? I will show you how to use them in a drink called beer.” The Devil shows Gambrinus how to build a brewery, how to brew beer and gives him seeds to grow hops. Not without a little tasting of course and after a few cups the sad man actually does feel a lot better. The Devil also gives him a chime that plays such wonderful music, that everyone that hears its music simply must dance to it.
Gambrinus goes back to his hometown and grows his hops, builds his brewery and practices on his chime. And when his first brew is ready he calls on all the people from his town, who humiliated him at his last concert, to the market square for a taste. At first none of them likes this bitter drink and they mock Gambrinus and his stupid beer. But then he starts to play his chime and of course everyone starts to dance. He lets them suffer for several hours, till everyone is really thirsty. When the music finally stops they turn to the beer and love it more with every sip they take. Gambrinus and his brewery are a hit and this news travels fast.
Gambrinus spreads his new drink all over the country and the King of the Netherlands even rewards him with a title: Duke of Brabant. Allthough Gambrinus himself prefers the unofficial title King of Beer better. He spends his days mostly drinking and partying. Finally he is not only rich, but also a man who moves around in the highest circles of society.
Flandrine, who secretly liked him too all this time but was too proud to admit it, waits for the duke to come back and ask her hand a third time. But when he doesn’t she decides to pay him a visit. As she puts out her hand, Gambrinus doesn’t recognize her and thinks it’s just another person that wants to try his beer. So he gives her a glass and turns away. The beer finally got him to forget Flandrine, as he wished for.
The times pass and for 30 years Gambrinus lives the good life. But then the Devil comes back to collect his soul. When he spots him the tipsy duke decides to welcome him with music from his chime. As it turns out even the Devil can’t resist these tones and he starts dancing. After a few hours every bone in his body starts to hurt and he begs Gambrinus to stop. He will even tear up the contract for his soul, if the King of Beer doesn’t play one more note. So it happens. The happy Gambrinus gives the devil a barrel of his own brew, that he finishes in one angry sip before returning to hell, claiming he’ll be back for this soul after Gambrinus’ natural life.
The King of Beer lives almost 100 years in drunkenness until finally word reaches hell that he died. The Devil is eager to collect his soul but when he gets to the place where Gambrinus has died, instead of a body he finds a beer barrel. The Devil then accepts that the soul of the King of Beer will never be his.
Gambrinus and the huge barrel
And there’s a second famous tale about how Gambrinus gained his title King of Beer. A group of brewers came together to choose their new leader. They agreed that it had to be someone who was strong and courageous and they came up with a contest; whoever could carry a huge beer barrel the fastest over a distance of ‘two stone throws’, would be their new first man.
One after another tried to move this enormous barrel full of beer. Some of the contestants managed to move it a few meters but nobody came even close to the finish line. Last of all it was Gambrinus’ turn. Instead of using brutal force, he had a servant install a little tap in the barrel. He then went to lay under it and drank beer till the barrel was empty. After this cunning trick it was a piece of cake to move the barrel.
Impressed by his shrewdness, as well as his drinking skills, the other brewers immediately named Gambrinus their leader and gave him the title King of Beer.
Besides these tales, the legacy of Gambrinus has been honored in many songs and poems in Medieval Europe. Not just in Holland, Belgium and Germany but also in England, France and Czech Republic, to name a few. In that last country one of the most popular beers is named Gambrinus. There’s also a Belgian beer Primus and a Dutch one called Hertog Jan (Duke John), which are both named after the most-likely ‘real’ Gambrinus. All around the world there are numerous bars named after the saint patron of beer and many student fraternities honor his name and legend. April the 11th is even named King Gambrinus Day. So put this date in your agenda and be sure to raise a glass or two for the Duke of Brabant, also known as the King of Beer.