Gambrinus, Jan, is the mythical King of Beer and probably the most ubiquitous figure in the crowded pantheon dreamed up by centuries of beer drinkers. Throughout Europe and the Americas, beers, breweries, statues, and even malts bear his name and visage. Also called “The Patron Saint of Brewers” (a distinction also claimed for St. Arnold), in most images King Gambrinus rides a giant cask and is shown replete with an ermine cloak, a crown, and a Falstaffian mug of ale. Like other heroic archetypes, the tales associated with him are many and tall. Perhaps the most grandiose among them has Gambrinus receiving the gift of beer directly from the Egyptian fertility goddess Isis. Another tells of a medieval joint partnership with the devil in which, in exchange for some 30 years’ lease on our hero’s soul, the deluder teaches him the process and art of brewing. Other tales are military, whether trumpeting his exploits during the Crusades or his aid in breaking the ecclesiastical hold of Cologne and its over-taxed brewers. Still other stories devolve to nothing more than the clever solution to a drinking contest, in which Gambrinus’ method of lifting an impossibly large cask involves drinking its contents first.

American bronze panel from 1937 showing Jan Gambrinus in high relief. The German phrase roughly translates to “God Save Hops and Malt.” pike microbrewery museum, seattle, wa

The stories of Gambrinus, in fact, are a pastiche of historical appearance by a number of actual personages and embellishments of the storyteller’s art. Two figures are most commonly mentioned: Jan Primus (John I, 1251–1295) of Brabant, a Burgundian duke who served as “king” of the brewers’ guild of Brussels, and Jean sans Peur (John the Fearless, 1371–1419), who in some versions carries the distinction of inventing hopped beer, but whose biography mainly carries a history of courtly and political intrigue. Other possibilities exist as to actual historical antecedent, many dependent on unreliable pronunciation of an actual name, and all eventually giving way to the generally Latinized name Gambrinus.

See also beer gods.