Wilmington’s first brewfest raises funds for historic beer statue

Beer fans at Saturday’s inaugural Wilmington beer festival will help pay for the restoration of an 11-foot statue that once stood atop the city’s Diamond State Brewery.

Beer tourism is thriving in Delaware with multiple breweries drawing visitors from Delaware and the region. The state is even promoting a beer, wine and spirits trail that awards travelers who visit 10 out of 20 breweries, wineries, distilleries, cideries or meaderies around the state.

On Saturday, Wilmington will host its first Downtown Brewfest with more than 40 local breweries offering over 100 brews. The event will be held from 1:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. at Chelsea Tavern on N. Market Street with live music and food from 11 local restaurants.

“Renewed interest in craft beer and craft-brewing in recent years has had a significant effect on Delaware’s economy, including that of Wilmington,” Mayor Mike Purzycki said. “These small, but thriving manufacturers are proud of their product which we are happy to feature at Saturday’s festival.”

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Beer making was once big business in Wilmington, and this weekend’s festival will raise money to restore some of that history.

Icon of brewing

From 1882 until 1962, a massive 11-foot-tall zinc statue stood on one of the tallest buildings in Wilmington at that time: the Diamond State Brewing Company building at 5th and Adams Streets.

“The statue was up on one of the highest buildings at the highest point so it was something that could be seen from all over the city,” said John Medkeff, author of Brewing in Delaware.

The statue depicted the fictitious beer god Gambrinus.

“The statue was an icon of brewing, and it was a tradition that was carried over from European breweries,” Medkeff said. The Gambrinus statue was based on French nobleman John I, the Count of Flanders. John I was a big man with a big beard. The statue depicted him holding a stein aloft in a toast in one hand and a sword in the other.

“If there is a perfect portrait of a beer drinking man, it was John I, the Count of Flanders,” said retired Delaware State Archivist Russ McCabe.

Eventually, the Gambrinus statue was a victim of progress. The brewery closed in 1955 and was being used as a storage facility into the early 1960s.

Medkeff said when it was planned to have I-95 cut through the city, the brewery was torn down to make way for the highway. The statue was saved just days before the demolition, and briefly put on display in a furniture store, before being moved into storage. In 1978, the statue was being transferred from one storage location to another when it was dropped.

“It’s very fortunate that the statue, we believe, fell backward, and the bust was saved,” Medkeff said. The rest of the statue crumbled into more than 60 pieces. While researching material for his book, Medkeff was bequeathed the remains of the statue and is now working to raise money to restore Gambrinus to his former glory.

“It’s gonna take a lot of money. We’ve been quoted estimates of about a hundred thousand dollars to get the statue restored,” Medkeff said.

He hopes modern day beer fans will enjoy looking back at a symbol of what he calls the first golden age of brewing.

“We’re going through the second golden age of brewing now in Delaware, and really nationally. And Gambrinus is a symbol of that, as well as being a symbol of the greatest period of growth and industry in Wilmington and also all of Delaware.”

Once restored, the statue will be donated to the Delaware Historical Society.

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