Bruce Dickinson is in quite the jovial mood this afternoon. “Oh, I’m very good,” the Iron Maiden frontman brightly announces, “I’m busy on all fronts, which is a nice way to be. Plenty of plate-spinning going on!”
In July, the legendary British metal band wrapped up a truly epic tour in support of The Book of Souls, their 16th studio album. The 117-date trek, Maiden’s longest in thirty years, began in February 2016 and hit 36 different countries on six continents, with Dickinson – a licensed commercial pilot – pulling double-duty at the controls of the band’s Boeing 747 and 757.
With that now behind him, you couldn’t blame Dickinson for taking a nice long vacation on some quiet tropical island; but instead, he’s hard at work promoting his new autobiography, What Does This Button Do? (out October 31 in the US via Dey Street Books), and also promoting Hallowed, the latest beer collaboration between Iron Maiden and England’s venerable Robinsons Brewery.
A 6.0% alcohol by volume Belgian-inspired ale, Hallowed is the first beer brewed by Robinsons to utilize Belgian yeast. The beer – whose bottles feature an image of “Eddie,” the band’s mascot, garbed in traditional monk’s robes – will be distributed in the US for four months beginning in October, though Dickinson says he hopes it will become a permanent part of the Robinsons roster.
“We discussed it the other day, and the Robinsons people are so stoked about it, they’re thinking it could be a second permanent Maiden beer, not just limited-edition,” he says. Robinsons and Iron Maiden first collaborated on Trooper, a 4.7% ABV ESB-style ale introduced in 2013, which is still widely available in the UK and US; the band and brewery have also collaborated on the limited releases Trooper 666 (a 6.6% ABV ESB) and Trooper Red ‘n’ Black (a 6.8% ABV English porter), both of which have since been retired.
Glass of Hallowed in hand, October spoke with the ever-affable Maiden frontman about its creation, as well as the evolution of British beer and the dangers of drinking too much while penning your autobiography.
The key is not to drink too much. And then, at the end of it, you have another one to celebrate.”
Though this interview is mostly going to be about beer, I wanted to start out by asking about your new autobiography. What made you decide to write it?
Well, I’d had about three different authors come to me over the last ten years or so, people wanting to do something to do with an autobiography, life story, that kind of stuff. And I was always like, “Well, I’m not really done with my life yet – it’s still a work in progress!” [Laughs] And then this whole episode happened a couple of years ago with cancer [Dickinson had cancerous tumors removed from his neck and tongue in 2015] and I thought, “Oooh – that could have been a bit unfortunate!” You know, if I’d happened to just, like, die all of a sudden, you’d think to yourself, “Oh, damn, I knew there was something I should have done!” [Laughs]
So that kind of focused the mind a bit, like, “Oh yeah, okay, maybe.” And the other thing that cancer did was, it gave me an end-point to finish the book. Initially, I wasn’t even going to call it an autobiography; I just wanted it to be sort of a book of stories. But it’s ended up being a sequential autobiography – it was just a natural progression. I didn’t use a ghost writer; I wrote it myself. And in actual fact, scarily, I hand-wrote it on seven big pads of paper. It’s 170,000 hand-written words! I’m a terrible typist, and it’s far easier for me to write than it is for me to type. [Laughs]
Did you have to carve out writing time while you were on tour?
Funnily enough, this is where we start impinging upon the world of beer. Because I used to go and sit and write in the pub. I would find myself a little table in the corner of the pub, and I would get myself a couple of beers over the course of, you know, an hour and a half, two hours. And I would just write. Probably fifty percent I did there, at my local; and then on odd days off from tour or when I was traveling, I’d be writing. I find writing on trains or things like that quite easy. I would generally do about 1200 or 1500 words a day.
What was your beer of choice when you were writing?
Well, my local is Fuller’s pub; it’s just down the road from my house, probably about a thousand yards away. I quite like beefy beers, so Fuller’s ESB has always been a favorite of mine. I’d have two pints of ESB over a course of a couple of hours or so; because if you drink two pints of ESB quickly, therein lies incapacitation. [Laughs]
And therein lies NOT getting 1200 words down on paper?
Yeah, exactly. You try and time it so you’re just finishing the second beer just as you get to word 1200 or 1300, and then you’re done. I’ve found that there’s a really sweet spot where you just have a few sips of beer, and you really start to relax into it and you go and go and go – and then you realize you haven’t been drinking your beer. The key is not to drink too much. And then, at the end of it, you have another one to celebrate.
But obviously, it’s live beer from the cask, hand-pumped. In terms of our English ale experience, that’s in our DNA. And I suppose you do make the mistake of thinking that everyone else has the same experience, because they don’t!
No, not at all. Many of us in the States grew up on the Pabst Blue Ribbon experience, or something of that sort.
Mmm, oh god. Oh my god, I am so sorry! [Laughs] I’ve had the Pabst Blue Ribbon experience, and yeah, it leaves me baffled!
Do you recall your first beer?
Oh god, it was something awful… Actually, my first alcoholic drink wasn’t even beer. It was cider! The first beer I had was something really nasty, like Carling Black Label – a brand that I don’t think still exists! Funnily enough, where I went to boarding school, one of the things they did when you got to sixteen or seventeen, believe it or not some of the school teachers arranged for mini beer festivals. All the local breweries would come in with wooden barrels, and we’d have beer tastings. And Sunday lunch, if you were in the sixth form, or you were seventeen – you were allowed to have a pint of beer with your lunch!
It’s interesting the way that beer has evolved in different societies. For example, English ales in the early half of the last century, before the Second World War – ale beer was, by and large, very weak. It was often drunk in preference to water, because it was more healthy; it wasn’t contaminated, and it didn’t have nasty bugs in it, and things like that. You couldn’t necessarily trust the water supply, but you could drink beer.
So beer was quite weak; some beers were only two and a bit percent, barely alcoholic at all. Workmen who were out doing heavy manual labor – coal miners, railway workers – would drink, over the course of the day, five or six pints of beer at work whilst operating heavy machinery.
But of course, you move on to today, and beer has steadily, steadily, steadily gotten stronger. The influx of the stronger lagers came over, and suddenly English beer started becoming stronger, as well, almost in a kind of arms race. [Laughs] Interestingly, now, the process is sort of slowly reversing.
Which is fine with me — 11% beers are great, but I can’t drink like that every day.
Exactly, exactly. When we brewed Trooper, our initial beer with Robinsons – it’s our flagship beer, if you like – it was 4.7, which puts it slightly on the higher end of what you would term a session ale. We thought that, with the character of it and everything else, that was acceptable.
But when it first came out, there were comments on a couple of websites from what I assume must be really quite uneducated beer people, who said, “4.7? That’s just muck! That’s not worth drinking! Nothing less than 7% is worth drinking!” And I was like, “What kind of knucklehead are you? You obviously know nothing about beer!” [Laughs] I thought, surely the world can’t be full of people like that. And, of course, 18 million pints later, I’d say we’ve got a lot of fans out there!
I’ve heard that your cancer treatments effected your taste buds, which in turn inspired the creation of Hallowed. Can you elaborate on that?
Yes, the radiation and chemo made my sense of taste disappear for a while; then, when I got clear of cancer and everything was returning back to normal, the only thing that didn’t return immediately was my ability to discriminate sugar. When I tasted caramel sauce, for example, I tasted mostly the stuff around the sugar – I tasted the salty bits and things – but the aroma would be one hundred percent.
Now, fortunately, the profile in ales doesn’t depend that much on sugars; there’s a lot more complex flavors going on in ales. But when you move over to a lager, it’s much more dependent on sugar. So lagers are frankly disappointing to me now; I hardly touch lagers anymore. If you get one of those nice Czech lagers, they have a little bit of something going on with the aftertaste; but just ordinary lagers, I can’t see the point, really.
So I wanted to experiment with aromas, particularly with Belgian lagers – I love Belgian lagers. Leffe has that lovely, peppery aroma and aftertaste to it; we realized that what we could do very easily was design kind of a knock-off of Leffe, but we didn’t want to do that. What’s the point of doing that? But by changing the flavor profile but keeping the Belgian yeast… oh, my word!
I’m a big fan of malty Belgians… and Hallowed really is right in my wheelhouse.
I’m so glad you like it! There’s a Belgian beer, Grimbergen, which is one of my favorites. It’s absolutely to die for, and I feel we’re right there with Hallowed – though it’s a little bit more nutty, our beer, because of the kind of base we’re using. We’re using a slightly different base for the yeast to feed off. Martyn Weeks, the master brewer at Robinsons, did an amazing job getting the yeast to collaborate, because initially the yeast didn’t like our sugars.
It went on strike! [Laughs] The French are always going on strike you see, that’s the problem! So ironically, this beer really is a beer of European collaboration. We finally got the French to collaborate with the British on something! [Laughs]
I love brewing, because it’s definitely an art, and it’s definitely a science!”
At the moment, Hallowed is currently only available in bottles on a limited basis. But you say you’re considering making it a year-round release?
We’re seriously thinking about it. Now, in order to do that, we want to be putting it in keg, which I think will be fantastic. In fact, Red ‘n’ Black, our stout, is absolutely unbelievable in keg; it’s just gorgeous! And so the thinking is, we’ll go in keg at the same ABV as the bottle, at 6.0 percent. But I think if we’re going to turn Hallowed into a mainstream beer, we may drop the ABV of the keg slightly, if it doesn’t affect the flavor too much. I think we’ll be selling a lot more beer if it’s a 5.2 than if it’s a 6.0. Because if you drink a couple of pints of beer at 6.0, you are on your ass. Whereas you could spend quite a bit of a while longer at 5.2. You’re in normal lager territory there, normal strong lager.
So you’ll be experimenting with that to see if you can pull it off?
Oh yeah, absolutely. See, we’re keeping the bottle at 6.0; so if people want the 6.0 percent experience, they can just get a bottle of it. But if they want to spend the evening drinking a few pints, they can go with the keg. But we’ve got to look at that carefully, and see how much you lose by doing that. You only really know when you brew it and stick it in a keg; you can guess at things, but until you actually make it, you don’t know.
I’ll own up — because of my background with cask ale, I used to be a bit of a snob about keg. But not anymore. It’s really come around, it really has. And any keg is better than bad cask! Whenever I go ‘round the brewery, I always make sure I sample a keg and a cask version of our beers. Red ‘n’ Black is way better in keg than it is in cask, even a well put-together cask. Hallowed, we can’t even make it in cask; it just doesn’t work. And that’s to be expected. Trooper, when it’s set up right in cask, is unbeatable. But you know what? The keg is never far behind.
Are there any future Maiden/Robinsons collaborations planned?
Oh, yes. We’ve got ourselves four beers now, and I’ve got another three targets that I’m shooting at, two of which will definitely be standard, seasonal-type beers. The third one, well, it might be a perennial. It depends; I have some pretty crazy ideas. As soon as I zoned in on the idea of becoming more aromatic in my approach to things, it really opened everything up. It was like, “My god, there’s all these flavors we could use! But how do we do it?”
It’s very easy to add flavor to beer, but it’s not very organic; it hasn’t grown with the beer. You always know when it’s just something squirted into somebody’s drink to taste like vanilla or whatever; it’s like making orange juice out of sugary orange concentrate – it sucks, and it’s just not the same as fresh-squeezed. And it’s the same thing with beer. You’ve got to have the whole thing growing together as one organism. So I’m looking at different yeasts, and we have some pretty wacky ideas, Martyn and I. He’s gone back to the lab; he’s in the biochemistry world, at the moment, which is brilliant.
I love brewing, because it’s definitely an art, and it’s definitely a science!