BREWTAL TRUTH: Drink Real Ale…Or Not

We know, we know, this Trooper beer is old news. You’ve seen a bazillion blog posts on every metal website in the internetiverse about it and maybe, if it’s available where you live, you’ve even tried it. It’s an Iron Maiden beer, so of course you have. But it’s actually more than a typical “big-name band slaps logo on piss-colored fizz water lager and calls it good.” This is, in fact, the measured opposite (at least in some regards) of that. First of all, it’s an ale—so big ups for that, at least—and that separates it from Motörhead and AC/DC’s own predictable pale lagers.
The English have an interesting relationship with beer in general. On the plus side of the ledger, many iconic styles—pale ale, India pale ale, porter and stout—were created there centuries ago. On the minus side, for much of the last several decades bland, pale lagers have been the beer of choice in England. We went to a traditional pub in London in the late ’90s and were horrified to find most people in the bar holding a bottle of Budweiser. The popular infatuation with pale lagers became so great it threatened to wipe out the English brewing tradition of real ale (also known as cask ale).

So, what the hell is real ale? It sounds like a term Manowar might come up with, but it’s meant to indicate an ale—and it can be pretty well any style of ale—that is brewed and served in a really traditional way. Two of the characteristics—a lack of big carbonation and a less-than-frigid serving temp—can be off-putting to us North Americans who insist all beer should be ice cold and really fizzy. Basically a real ale is brewed, put into a cask (a keg) without being filtered and pasteurized, and then a dose of yeast (and sometimes sugar) is added to start a secondary fermentation that creates all the carbonation the beer will have. Since no added gas (carbon dioxide or nitrogen) is used to fizz it up and propel it through a draft line, casks can be set up on bars and tapped so that gravity does the work of getting it out of the cask, or it can be drawn up (if the cask is stored away) with a hand pump. And, yes, the “proper” English way to serve this brew is at cellar temp, which isn’t room temp, but it isn’t “chilled” either.

The benefits of cask beer or real ale are that it is beer in its more unprocessed and “natural” form and thus tastier. When beer is filtered and pasteurized, a good bit of the flavor is wiped out. It’s basically no longer alive. Bringing this all back to Iron Maiden’s Trooper beer—which real ale fan Bruce Dickinson apparently helped develop—if you were to find this beer on draft in a pub in England, it would be cask ale and it would probably taste markedly different than this bottled version, which has definitely been filtered and likely pasteurized so that no unwanted secondary fermentation occurred. Secondary fermentation is good when it’s intentional, but not so good when it happens because an unfiltered beer wasn’t kept cool and the yeast comes to life again in an unexpected way.

The bottled Trooper beer looks nice, smells decent—floral, citrus and grainy malt notes—and tastes fairly innocuous to our North American palate. Style-wise it’s probably closest to an ESB, but it is quite light bodied. For a band that makes music that’s complex, intricate and deep, this is rather pedestrian. Certainly not bad, like that AC/DC beer that was foisted on the Canadian market, but just a bit lacking in intensity and depth. Though we’re not the biggest fan of real ale—again, probably a cultural thing—we can’t help but think that Trooper in a cask would rock a little harder.

Adem Tepedelen’s new craft beer book, Decibel Presents the Brewtal Truth Guide to Extreme Beers: An All-Excess Pass to Brewing’s Outer Limits, is now available in the Decibel online store.