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Born to Be (Beer) King

by: HorstDornbusch on 09-21-2004
Anybody who has been watching beer commercials on TV during this presidential year 2004 is aware that much has been made of the "President of Beer." Perhaps most memorable is the erudite legal argument by a cute little mule, all decked out in parade gear, explaining to an equally festively decked out Budweiser Clydesdale that Miller could never be president because it is South African - clearly an allusion to the presidential qualifications definition in article II, section 1, clause 5 of the United States Constitution. That clause limits eligibility for the Presidency of the United States to natural-born citizens.

A Case of Royal Obfuscation
We can have some fun with this battle of the beer image makers over the "beer presidency." Importantly, we should point out that the Miller Brewing Company is entirely "American-born." It was founded in Milwaukee in 1855, when a German immigrant brew master, Frederick Miller, purchased what was then the Plank Road brewery. That was 21 years before the first Budweiser was brewed in St. Louis in 1876. Miller became a division of the Philip Morris conglomerate in 1969. The cigarette-maker spun Miller off in 2002, when it sold its brew division to the international giant South African Breweries (SAB). Given the interwoven games of global mergers and take-overs in the modern brew industry, it is hard to figure out nowadays who owns what, and debating the nationality of a multi-national corporation or its subsidiaries seems now more futile than ever. But formal-legally, albeit metaphorically, Miller definitely meets the stipulations of the presidential qualifications clause.

Beer is universally recognized as the most democratic of all drinks, the beverage that levels all rank. If beer is the people's drink, therefore, perhaps it is fair game for Miller to spend big bucks claiming to be the "president" of beer. To the observant scribe, there is a certain irony in Budweiser's attack on Miller. After having spent decades building up a monarchical image for its brand, the "King of Beers" now borrows imagery from an anti-monarchical constitution to sideline its rival in the market place. Based on the dueling slogans in the TV ads, one can surmise that even President George Washington and King George III would have had a hard time figuring out which of the two, Bud or Miller, is for or against the American Revolution.

The Mythical King of Beer
America is not the only place, where kings claim to be the rulers of beer. In fact, the real beer king may not even live in Missouri, but in Germany, a place that had a vibrant brewing culture long before Columbus discovered the Americas, and where a fellow named Gambrinus is hailed as the king of beer. If we are to believe a particular beer label, he even has a Queen, who just might be called ... Warsteiner. Yes, this Westphalian Pilsner proudly proclaims that it is "Eine Königin unter den Bieren" (a queen among beers). Queen Warsteiner, however, does not tell us who her husband is. She cleverly uses the ambiguous indefinite article "a" instead of the definite article "the!" Might there be more than one queen and more than one king of beer?

To adjudicate the question of royal legitimacy in the kingdom of beerdom, obviously a background check on this Gambrinus fellow is in order. The task, however, turns out to be easier said than done. Superfically, Gambrinus may just be a myth. He may never have existed at all, owing his prominence merely to a tall tale and his name to a typo.

Gambrinus is perhaps best known for being the main character in a truly bizarre history of Bavaria entitled Annales Bajorum, written - obviously "under the influence" - in 1519 by a certain Johannes Turmair, who hid his identity behind the pseudonym Aventinus. According to this medieval hallucinator, a Germanic king called Gambrivius, ruler of the tribe of Gambrivii, married the Egyptian goddess Isis ... and invented beer. The couple then set out to teach the Germans how to brew. They settled in Bavaria and became the original progenitors of the line of Bavarian dukes. Oddly, they also founded the seaport city of Hamburg far to the north of land-locked Bavaria.

When Aventinus' weird yarn was being printed in Antwerp, in present-day Belgium, the printer mistook the "v" in Gambrivius for a "u" and inadvertently dropped the trailing "i". Thus was born King Gambrinus, the inventor of beer. For these loony Bavarian chronicles, Aventinus is today honored by having a fine brew named after him, the potent Schneider Aventinus Weizenbock, a beverage that needs to be approached with respect lest you want to spout tales just as bizarre as Johannes Turmair's.

The Historical King of Beer?
There is another explanation for the legendary Gambrinus as the inventor of beer. According to it, Gambrinus actually lived, not as a king, but as a real, thirteenth-century duke, who, in spite of Aventinus' fanciful annals, lived in what is now Belgium, not Bavaria. This medieval aristrocrat, however, was neither the first brewer nor the inventor of beer. His subjects never called him the "King of Beer." Yet, there is an odd twist to this historical fellow's story that turns him not into the inventor of all beer, but perhaps into the nilly-willy midwife of one particular beer style that still ranks among the world's greatest.

This feudal aristocrat was born around 1250 to the ruling family of Brabant and Flanders, an area that roughly encompasses today's Belgium and bits of neighboring Holland and France. We don't know the precise date of his birth, but, significantly, we sure know exactly when he died - on May 3, 1294. His real name was Duke John I. "John" is "Jan" in Flemish and "first" is primus in Latin. So he was called Jan Primus. Now, if you say that fast and often, you can see how his subjects might have mangled his name, through ligature and sloppy pronunciation, to ... Gambrinus.

By all accounts, Duke Jan was a super-boozer and general bon vivant. He was a great supporter of the brewers guild of his realm. He had a reputation for partying all night and emptying a cask of brew in one sitting. In other ways, too, he was as wild and woolly a knight as they come - equally well known for exceptional bravery, revelry, and chivalry. He traveled his lands as swordsman, troubadour, and heart breaker. His amorous adventures were apparently as countless as the pretty babies and duped husbands he left in his wake.

The Inglorious End of the King of Beer
But it was one of his many affaires d'amour - not his drinking bouts - that eventually did Jan in. While visiting the castle of a French knight named Valseneuve, our itinerant philanderer managed to turn the lord of the manor into a cuckold by seducing his wife. But Jan was not Lady Valseneuve's first illicit transgression. There was also the matter of the castle's resident priest, who, far from being a model of chastity, had himself a more than casual acquaintance with the lady's bed chamber. To the misfortune of our amorous Jan, the spurned and jealous priest got wind of Lady Valseneuve's sidestep with Jan - and told the husband!

The irate Valseneuve, his honor besmirched, did what every self-respecting knight of the age would have done: He challenged Jan Primus to a duel at the next tournament. Jan's affaire du cœur had become Valseneuve's affaire d'honneur, and our Don Juan, of course, accepted. After all, noblesse oblige!

The night before the battle, with not a care in the world, Jan drank and caroused until dawn, as was his custom. No worse for wear, by daybreak, at the appointed time, on May 3, 1294, he was his usual fit and nimble-footed self and strutted confidently to the place of combat. Right from the start, Jan went on the attack, heaving heavily into the noble, but obviously imperiled Frenchman. The outcome seemed to be all but certain, when Valseneuve, sensing his imminent demise, resorted to a ruse: "What's this?" he yelled shrewdly. "Does the chivalrous knight need a second man to fight me?" Jan was incredulous, and, as he turned to check who the uninvited - and non-existent - helper might be, Valseneuve moved in for the kill. Our philanderer may have had the edge in brawn, but Valseneuve clearly had it in brain.

The Overlooked Connection
If the duel with Valseneuve had been Jan's most consequential battle, his story would almost certainly have been forgotten. But there is a much more meaty connection between Jan and the history of beer! Our buddy Jan Primus, that flamboyant sun-of-a-gun, may have lost the battle - and his life - on that fateful day in May, but he won another battle, the significance of which for the history of beer has escaped all but the most astute chroniclers:

Six years earlier, on June 5, 1288, Jan had been part of a military campaign for which he might justly be awarded the title of "king of beer". The event was the Battle of Worringen. It pitted the forces of the Archbishop of Cologne, Siegfried of Westerburg, and his allies, the dukes of Luxembourg and Geldern, against the forces of Duke Adolf V, headman of the Duchy of Berg, and his ally - you guessed it - our dare devil, Duke John I. What was at stake was no less than political control over the entire Rhineland and its adjacent regions, which included what is present-day Belgium.

Oddly enough, the good burghers of Cologne had formed an alliance with two "external" powers, Adolf and Jan, against their own bishop. The folks of Cologne were locked into a struggle with their archbishop and guardian of spiritual laws, over the very earthly and material right to regulate and tax commerce. And the most important taxable commodity in Cologne at the time was ... beer! By the mid-thirteenth century, the brewers of Cologne had become the most heavily taxed inhabitants of the city, and much of that revenue swelled the coffers of the Church. Brewers paid a sales tax on their malt, an excise tax on their brew kettles, and a business tax on the finished beer. No wonder the Brewers Guild of Cologne was among the most ardent supporters of the plot against the bishop.

On the day of the battle, about 6,000 combatants confronted each other near Worringen (a tiny hamlet outside Cologne) to engage in one of the bloodiest battles of the Middle Ages. In the end, the Church's forces were severely routed. The Battle of Worringen spelled the end of the secular might of the Cologne archbishop and the beginning of the supremacy of the civil authority in the Rhineland, a change that Duke Jan helped to bring about.

To spite his vanquished ecclesiastic foe and to create a counterweight to the influence of Cologne, Duke Adolf V of Berg decided to establish a new city two dozen miles further down the Rhine. Thus, on August 14, 1288, he granted a little hamlet by the name of Düsseldorf a city charter. Düsseldorf gradually gained in importance and power and, by the sixteenth century, had become the administrative capital of the Rhineland. Thus, one of the unintended consequences of our beer-loving Jan Primus' victory at the Battle of Worringen was the emergence of a second Rhenish metropolis, which was soon to develop its own beer style, the top-fermented Atbier, a rival to the Kölsch ale of Cologne. It might be an exaggeration to elevate the Belgian boozing knight Jan Primus, or "Gambrinus," to the level of king for his part in these events. Historically, the title "Duke of Altbier" might be more fitting.

The legend of beer "king" Gambrinus, however obscure, has proven irresistible. In 1868, for instance, the First Shareholders' Brewery of Pilsen in Bohemia sprang up to compete with the Burghers' Brewery's well-established Pilsner Urquell. In the 1890s this brewery was renamed the Gambrinus Brewery, only to merge with the Burghers' Brewery in 1935. Today, this brewery is owned by SAB/Miller (the "president of beer") and makes both the Pilsner Urquell and the Gambrinus brands of lager beers. Even down under, in Melbourne, Australia's first lager brewery, founded by two German immigrant brewers in 1885, was named after Gambrinus.

Whatever you think of the competing tales of Gambrinus, or whoever you think deserves the title of "king of beer," there appear to be no brews claiming to be the princess or prince of beer - at least not yet! These claims are still up for grabs ... Coors, are you listening?
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