Gambrinus, The King of Beer, and Brewery Ephemera
By Moira F. Harris
Companies have brand icons that they protect fiercely by under trademark laws. Industries may have icons using versions of a traditional image. For example, Bacchus and his bunch of grapes represent wine and the growing of grapes. His counterpart, Gambrinus, is not only the spirit, but the King of Beer.
Gambrinus is often said to be based on a thirteenth century duke of Brabant (a province in today's Belgium). Gambrinus, or Jan Primus (John the First) headed the Brussels guild of brewers and is said to have offered the first toast. His actual tomb was located in downtown Brussels. He is shown as either a young man or as an older bearded crown-wearing royal. At either age he holds high in his right hand a foaming glass of his favorite beverage.
Gambrinus was a well-known image in Europe, used by Belgian, German, French, Dutch, and Czech brewers, but he reached America only after German immigrants arrived (with their taste for lager) in the 1840s. By 1876 a figure of Gambrinus stood over the entrance to Brewers' Hall at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.
After 1876 brewers bought statues of Gambrinus to stand over their own portals or gateways. Some firms brewed beers called Gambrinus while others opened firms named in his honor. At least two Gambrinus statues have entered museum collections. The Onondaga Historical Society of Syracuse, New York, has preserved the Haberle brewery's statue while the American Brewery of Baltimore's figure now belongs to the Maryland Historical Society in that city.
Gambrinus imagery was probably more widespread in the nineteenth and twentieth century than it is today yet a major beer distributor in Texas still uses his name. Bars and restaurants throughout the world are named for him, including a chain of taverns in Spain where Heineken's serves its Cruzcampo beer greeted by figures of Gambrinus.
Among the items of ephemera a collector can find are Gambrinus labels, posters, coasters, postcards, and business stationery. Breweriana collectors, who save materials in other media than paper, find Gambrinus on trays, steins, and in stained glass windows. Breweries like Wisconsin's Pabst and G. Heileman used their Gambrinus figures in advertising although neither marketed Gambrinus beers. The Pabst and Heileman statues were occasionally seen in Oktoberfest parades and still stand in Milwaukee and La Crosse.
*For more information on Gambrinus history and art see the author's articles in The Breweriana Collector (Fall 2000) and The American Breweriana Journal (November-December 2000).