A rebirth of brewing in Wilmington?

Old King Gambrinus, the once-legendary symbol of Delaware’s greatest brewery, is in sad shape these days. He’s strewn across the floor in about 60 pieces, barely salvaged from the junk heap by a passionate beer historian in Wilmington, Del.

“This is the most iconic image of brewing in Delaware,” said John Medkeff Jr., who has been writing about Delaware beer history for more than 20 years.

Gambrinus once stood atop the Diamond State Brewery in Wilmington — a glorious 11-foot-tall, one-ton robed king made of molded zinc, one hand resting on a barrel, the other majestically raising a frothing goblet of suds. His reign ended when the 100-year-old brewery was demolished to make way for I-95 construction. Gambrinus was salvaged, then exiled to the parking lot in front of a local restaurant, then somehow broken during transport. Ultimately, Medkeff discovered the pieces among the estate of a deceased museum curator.


SIDEBAR: WHO WAS KING GAMBRINUS? Read it here.


John Medkeff Delaware brewery historian
Medkeff

Now he’s on a mission to raise $100,000 to restore the king.

And he couldn’t have picked a better time, for Wilmington’s beer scene itself is seeing signs of restoration, with the arrival of two new area breweries in recent months.

The brewing industry in Delaware – never particularly big – was generally overshadowed by the much larger breweries in Philadelphia and Baltimore. Diamond State, its largest, topped out around 130,000 barrels a year – less than one-tenth the size of Schmidt’s of Philadelphia.

Prohibition and the growth of regional brands in the 1950s eventually drove Diamond State into bankruptcy, and Delaware would be without a brewery of its own for the next 40 years.

Starting in the 1990s, the state’s craft beer growth has been slow and spotty. Some beer makers, including Rockford, Brandywine and Downtown, came and went. Others – notably Dogfish Head and Iron Hill – are now nationally recognized as craft brewing leaders. Other smaller breweries, especially at the Delaware shore, have cropped up in recent years.

Today, Delaware has just 21 breweries statewide (fewer than Montgomery County in the Philadelphia suburbs, by comparison). It nonetheless ranks No. 20 nationwide in breweries per capita (just behind Pennsylvania and well ahead of New Jersey) due to its small population, according to the Brewers Association.

Wilmington itself has the seeds of a solid beer-making scene, with the likes of Iron Hill/Wilmington on the riverfront; Bellefonte, Dew Point, Twin Lakes and Frozen Toes on the outskirts; and the two newcomers:

  • Stitch House Brewing, a brewpub with a former brewer at Philadelphia’s Yards Brewing as brew master, opened in March amid downtown redevelopment efforts.
  • Wilmington Brew Works, operating out of a beautifully restored former electroplating facility, opened last weekend.
Drew Rutherford of Stitch House Brewing
Rutherford

“The downtown especially seems on the cusp of a resurgence,” said Drew Rutherford, head brewer at Stitch House. A former brewer at Yards of Philadelphia, Rutherford said the new downtown brewpub is already attracting young professionals who’ve begun moving into the area. “Lunch is really busy, with all of the office workers, and we get a good theater crowd,” he said. “But now we’re seeing a younger crowd at night as well.”

Stitch House isn’t just for the locals, either. It’s worth the drive down I-95, – or a quick SEPTA train from Philly – to check out Rutherford’s excellent brews. He’s a rare brewpub brewer who’s not afraid to mix in full-bodied, malt-forward lagers with the usual hop monsters. I enjoyed a sweet but crisp-finishing Mai Bock and a deeply complex Vienna Lager on my visit. I’d tell you about his Helles, only it was tapped out – a sad state of affairs that Wilmington Brew Works head brewer Craig Wensell told me he was personally responsible for.

Speaking of which, Wilmington Brew Works –  which just opened last weekend – shows immense promise, with some unique sours and pale ales. I’m looking forward to seeing their cans in beer stores in months to come.

There’s considerable hope that the new breweries in Wilmington are sign that the city itself is on the rebound.  Medkeff is optimistic about the growth, and is hopeful it will spark renewed interest in Delaware’s brewing history.

“Really,” Medkeff told me over beers at WBW’s opening last weekend, “the king embodies the state’s long-lost brewing history. And now it can become the symbol of the restoration of Delaware brewing.”

Gambrinus in pieces
Gambrinus in pieces

But it’s going to take time and money to rebuild King Gambrinus. Some of the statue’s pieces are missing, and reassembly will be painstaking. Medkeff wants to scan an existing, intact statue to properly re-create the piece.

So far, he’s started a non-profit and raised about $15,000.

Ultimately, it will be displayed at the Delaware Historical Society in downtown Wilmington.

Meanwhile, you can raise a glass in the spirit of Gambrinus – and support his restoration – at this Saturday’s Downtown Brewfest in Wilmington. The event features local beer, live music, food trucks, a homebrew competition and more. A portion of ticket sales will go toward the Gambrinus statue restoration.

Tix $40.

Want to read more about Delaware brewery history? Medkeff authored an excellent guide, with lots of photos. Buy it from his website. He’s donating all the proceeds to the Friends of Historic Riverview Cemetery and the Delaware Historical Society,

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