The same cannot be said of Gambrinus as he is depicted in two dimensions in a wide range of formats. The first example here is a framed art piece of the king holding the traditional foaming goblet of beer. Reputedly dating from the 1880s in France, it bears a caption that says: “Gambrinus I: Grand Etude Aux de Crayons,” translated “A Large Study with Pencils.” That is something of a mystery since the picture seems to have been painted. In any case, it depicts the king at his majestic best, tastefully clad and noble of visage. This Gambrinus would make drinking beer a thoroughly ennobling experience.
Contrast it with the next Gambrinus, a seriously overweight monarch with a pendulous belly. Even while tapping a keg to fill a stein proffered by one of his subjects the king seems deep in an alcoholic slumber. The supporting characters, numbering about 15, are also interesting, particularly the serious looking gent sitting at the front reading a newspaper. He may be “Mr. Dry,” a top-hatted man with a sour look who came in many forms and was the image of the Prohibitionist. This image is a well-wrought color lithograph on a bar tray. It was issued for Arrow Beer by the Globe Brewery of Baltimore. Although this company was able to hang on for a time during Prohibition, it did not survive the period. The site of the brewery on South Hanover Street has long since been built over by the development of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.
The model for the Arrow Beer Gambrinus may have been a 1800s depiction of the king as, let’s admit it, a sloppy drunk. Not only is he asleep and bears the well-recognized symptom of a “beer gut,” he has lost one shoe and is in danger of dropping his scepter. He definitely has no kingly qualities. Contrast him with the Gambrinus on a 1895 German-made Mettlach beer stein. Although this king is a man of considerable girth, he is a fearsome figure, a scowl on his face and a sword by his side. The object of his wrath, however, is not immediately apparent. He seems to be picking a blossom from a hops plant, hops being an essential ingredient of beer. Is the blossom just too small?
Unlike the Arrow Beer example above, carrying and tip trays usually had more traditional depiction's of the king. These usually were given by breweries to favored customers such as saloons or restaurants. Gambrinus Beer of Portland, Oregon, provided a color lithograph on metal tray with the traditional monarch, looking fully majestic as he contemplates a quaff. This brewery was founded in 1875 by Louis Fuerer. Under Fuerer and subsequent management, the operation survived until Oregon went dry in 1916. The plant and the brand were revived in 1933 under the auspices of the Rose City Brewing Company. The Great Depression apparently doomed the effort and it shut down for good in 1940.
Casey & Kelly provided a tray that bears strong resemblance to the Portland product. In both the king is garbed in green and has a long reddish beard and hair. This king, however, wears around his neck a “star of David,” a symbol long identified with the Jewish faith. The answer may lie in the strong influence of Mennonite Christians in the spirits trade. Barred from many occupations in Europe, they frequently were the brewers, distillers and tavern keepers. Mennonites believed themselves to have a special affinity with the ancient Israelites and adopted the symbol. Here it is affixed to Gambrinus. Established in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in 1892, the brewery was one of 20 listed during that period for Scranton and obviously found it hard to break through the competition to find a customer base. It closed only five years later in 1897. This provides a relatively narrow window for dating the colorful tray.
Two Gambrinus beers were produced in the United States. One from Portland and the other from Columbus, Ohio. The Midwest version was brewed by August Wagner & Sons Brewing Company and advertised as “The Beer Your Daddy Drank.” Its king stands on a keg much as did a statue at the brewery shown in my previous post. A immigrant from Bavaria, Wagner opened his brewery a the corner of West Sycamore and Front in Columbus in 1906. It survived, with time out for Prohibition, into the 1970s.
Although the Mettlach stein shown here portrayed an angry and aggressive Gambrinus, most German steins have used the more traditional approach. Shown here are two examples, both from reasonably contemporary drinking vessels. One features an underglaze painted version of the king with the motto “Proset,” i.e. “Drink Up,” at under his bust. The other in bas relief shows the monarch sitting on a throne make from a beer keg. He seems happy although it cannot be a comfortable perch.
Although the Pabst Brewery in Milwaukee featured the giant statue of Gambrinus, as shown in the prior post, its cross-town rival, Blatz Brewery, featured a standing king on a brass token, probably meant as a pocket “good luck” charm. The reverse side contains the date 1863 and advertises “City Brewery & Malt House, Milwaukee.” That was the name that Valentine Blatz gave his brewing operation after taking over a small brewery in 1851 and expanding into one of the nation’s largest, occupying nearly an entire city block at the corner of Broadway and Division Streets in Milwaukee.
One brewery even gave his majesty a musical march. Shown here is the front of a sheet of music entitled “Koenig (King) Gambrinus. It shows the king amidst hops blossoms with scepter and a glass of beer in hand. The piece was copyrighted in 1915 by the Sieben Brewery Company of Chicago, which apparently commissioned its composition and to whom it is dedicated. The composer was H. Sallmann, who does not seem to have written anything else of note (pun intended). Michael Sieben, a immigrant from Mainz, Germany, founded his brewery on Pacific Avenue near Clark and Polk Streets in Chicago in 1865. It survived and thrived until shut down by Prohibition in 1920.
Now that we have seen the many manifestations of King Gambrinus, who was he and where did he come from? Although he often is called a “patron saint” of beer, brewing and brewers, he is definitely not a saint, though a patron he may be. He is a legendary European folk hero, celebrated as an symbol of beer drinking, sometime jovial, sometime not; sometimes a drunkard, usually not. Some think he is patterned after John the Fearless, others on John Primus, Duke of Brabant. Still others put forward additional historical or legendary candidates. The Wikipedia entry on Gambrinus runs to many paragraphs. The curious are invited to go there and be confused. Here it is enough to say that as an icon Gambrinus has shown amazing staying power through the centuries and is likely to remain with us in a wide range of formats for as long as there is beer to drink.