Things that matter: King Gambrinus

Michelle Kelly

Catalog Number: 2011.014.009

Copyright La Crosse County Historical Society

Copyright La Crosse County Historical Society

As the legendary patron saint and guardian of beer and brewing, King Gambrinus has been a staple in the La Crosse community since the first breweries in the mid-1800s.

The community first saw Gambrinus as the mascot of the John Gund Brewery and then again as the mascot for G. Heileman Brewing Co. Coincidentally, both breweries had their start at the same company: City Brewery.

City Brewery began in 1858 in La Crosse as a partnership between John Gund and Gottlieb Heileman, both German immigrants with a long history in brewing. In 1872, less than two decades into the partnership, Heileman bought Gund’s shares of the brewery after a falling-out. Gund left to found his own brewery, the John Gund Brewing Co., a rival to his old business, and Heileman renamed City Brewery the G. Heileman Brewing Co.

The John Gund Brewery was quick to adopt King Gambrinus as its mascot, printing his likeness on mugs, steins, glasses and serving trays. Serving trays were more for advertising than actual serving, and they were typically detailed advertisements for the beer brands or breweries they depicted. Early trays were often made of tin, with their design painted on. It was typical of Gund products to feature Gambrinus holding a footed pilsner glass of foaming beer and toasting from the center of an ornate G, such as in the one shown here.

After Prohibition, the John Gund Brewery went defunct, selling most of its brands and facilities to the C&J Michel Brewing Co., later renamed the LaCrosse Brewing Co. King Gambrinus was not seen in La Crosse again until G. Heileman Brewery took up the torch, or, more aptly, the staff, of King Gambrinus.

In 1939, the Heileman Brewery bought a statue of King Gambrinus from a New Orleans brewery that had, like Gund, gone defunct shortly after Prohibition. Heileman’s King stood at 15 feet, weighed 2,000 pounds and served as an imposing, but jolly, figure in front of the brewery’s main offices.

After a bout with vandalism, the king stands again at the location, now a part of City Brewery. Heileman had another King Gambrinus, a steel sculpture designed by Elmer Petersen, erected at 100 Harborview Plaza when the building opened as Heileman’s corporate headquarters. The Cleary family, which has a long history at Heileman Brewery, recently bronzed the steel Gambrinus and returned it to the corner of Front and State streets.

This article was originally published in the La Crosse Tribune on September 30,  2017.

This object can be viewed in our online collections database by clicking here.