Is ‘clean’ useful for discussing beer?

Representing clean beer, Kraftwerk; dirty beer, Albert Steptoe.
Kraftwerk are clean boys; Albert Step­toe is a dirty old man.

We’ve used the word clean to describe beer in the past with­out nec­es­sar­i­ly giv­ing a lot of thought to pre­cise­ly what we meant by it; and Tan­dle­man has been demand­ing clean flavours for some years. Then, this week, Mark ‘Pen­cil and Spoon’ Dredge announced his con­ver­sion to the cause of clean­ness and tried to unpack what it real­ly means. As this all makes a pleas­ant change from try­ing to define ‘craft beer’, here are some thoughts from us.

Does clean always sound pos­i­tive? To some, it might at first imply indus­tri­al, roboti­cised pre­ci­sion – even steril­i­ty. It might sug­gest ‘dry’, as in Asahi Super Dry – some­thing with no obtru­sive yeast char­ac­ter and no lin­ger­ing flavour. A syn­onym for bland. (But isn’t Sharp’s Doom Bar some­how both mud­dy and bland…?)

There’s such a thing as ‘too clean’. In record­ed music, peo­ple spend a lot of mon­ey on gad­gets and process­es to stop things sound­ing shiny and dig­i­tal – ‘warm­ing them up’. Insta­gram and the like are all about ‘de-dig­i­tal­is­ing’ pho­tographs by imbu­ing them with pleas­ing flaws.

What’s the oppo­site of clean? It might be dirty, but we’re not so sure. How about organ­ic (small O), funky or nat­ur­al? (Scrumpy cider is some­times known as ‘natch’.) To describe a piece of funk music as ‘nasty’ is a high com­pli­ment. ‘Grunge’ was the musi­cal buzz­word of our teenage years.

The impor­tant word in Mark’s post, from our point of view, is ‘mud­di­ness’. We’ve had some beers this year which were pre­sum­ably cre­at­ed with the inten­tion of com­plex­i­ty – lots of dif­fer­ent vari­eties of hop, many types of malt, com­plex yeasts, a touch of this spice or that, and flavour­ings. But, when you mix all the colours in the paint set, you end up with a murky brown.

How does this look? (Ten min­utes work, and sub­ject to change as we con­tin­ue to pon­der…)

Spectrum of beer from muddy to bland, via funky and clean.

21 thoughts on “Is ‘clean’ useful for discussing beer?”

  1. Gen­er­al­ly I sup­pose I’d go for ‘clean’ over ‘dirty’ (or what­ev­er’s a bet­ter term) but then some brew­ers like Har­vey’s have a ‘dirty’ house char­ac­ter I like. When Fuller’s start­ed brew­ing the Gale’s beers they cleaned them up, which made them more drink­able but lost some of the char­ac­ter.

  2. I think it all depends on the beer we are talk­ing about. Some funk works with some beers, but oth­ers taste bet­ter when they are clean, or clean­er. Many of the Czech made Pale Ales could use a bit of fil­ter­ing or fin­ing to get some of the obtru­sive yeast char­ac­ter out and leave more room for the malts and the hops.

    That said, I ful­ly agree with your last para­graph.

  3. I think that image at the end is very use­ful – the sweet spot is the line between chal­leng­ing and drink­able, and, I would add, between com­plex­i­ty and sim­plic­i­ty. Clean is impor­tant as an idea of clar­i­ty of flavour (as opposed to the mud­di­ness of com­pli­cat­ed-tast­ing, try­ing-too-hard beers).

    The best beers, I think, make you work a lit­tle bit (if you’re will­ing to put the effort in). And that’s what I want: I want to have to dig around a lit­tle bit and not just be hit with an obvi­ous, in-yer-face beer.

  4. I took Mark Dredge’s blog to mean “clean” beer as in beer that’s tech­ni­cal­ly out­stand­ing, even if it could be described as bland. Odell IPA being a prime exam­ple. Tech­ni­cal­ly flaw­less, hides it’s alco­hol incred­i­bly well but for me I want a 7% to have a bit more punch to it.

    Which leaves “dirty” beer as being beer full of off flavours. Beer that tastes of rot­ten eggs and anti­sep­tic.

  5. It’s con­text isn’t it — a ‘dirty’ woman sounds inter­est­ing, but a ‘dirty’ man is hygien­i­cal­ly chal­lenged, the Bea­t­les could be said to be clean and the Stones dirty, but I sus­pect peo­ple like songs from the both of them, but at dif­fer­ent times. I want a beer to work and yes dirty could mean murky but it could also mean inter­est­ing, I would put saisons, gueuze and lam­bic as one sort of dirty, while an eggy, unbal­anced glass of cask beer would be anoth­er sort of dirty. Clean can sound bland but it can also sound well-made. Seman­tics can be such a bug­ger.

  6. I liked Mark’s post quite a bit – except for the word. I pre­ferred one that was embed­ded in one of his explana­to­ry notes: accu­rate. Barn­yard funk in a lam­bic will nev­er be clean but it’s start­ing­ly accu­rate.

  7. I love the idea of accu­rate beer.

    I think ‘clean’ is prob­lem­at­ic. I hat­ed the idea of ‘clean’ when I saw Mark’s post title – it made me think of my recent adven­tures in craft keg land (‘makes it more drink­able’, ‘lifts the flavour’, ‘takes the edge off’ etc) but I found I agreed with it pret­ty much entire­ly.

    To me there’s a spec­trum with Rolling Rock at one end and, say, Mar­ble’s lat­est exper­i­ment at the oth­er (I love Mar­ble, but they do punt out a lot of stuff with the twigs still in). On one hand, does the flavour devel­op? Does it go any­where? Does it do any­thing inter­est­ing? On the oth­er, does it go any­where you’d rather not go, and do inter­est­ing things that you nev­er want to expe­ri­ence again? So a beer can be ‘dirty’ (or ‘unclean’?) because the brew­er has tried and failed to do some­thing good, or because they suc­ceed­ed in doing some­thing per­verse (I think we can all think of can­di­dates for both of those).

    The con­no­ta­tions of ‘clean’ to me are a bit too far over on the Rolling Rock side – it does­n’t make me think of Har­vey’s Best, for instance.

  8. I think most of your con­trib­u­tors com­plete­ly mis­un­der­stand what “clean” means in a beer, or what Mark Dredge was try­ing to say.

    Hard­ly sur­pris­ing in some ways and while pre­dictable, dis­ap­point­ing. I’m hap­py enough with what Mark says though, main­ly as it is what I have been say­ing for years.

    FWIW I think your handy lit­tle chart does­n’t real­ly cap­ture it, as it is lin­ear and too sim­ple. Clean, by the way, can­not real­ly be used on its own. Mark explains that rather well. That’s the point many seem to be miss­ing.

    1. Mis­un­der­stand’ as in there’s some kind of agreed def­i­n­i­tion they’ve (we’ve) missed the memo about..?

  9. Very droll. See my ear­li­er com­ment. The con­text as far as my com­ment is con­cerned, is what Dredgie said. And to help more, what Ron said. Well the sec­ond sen­tence.

    He could do with explain­ing the first sen­tence as you have request­ed.

  10. I’ve always thought clean beer is stuff which has a par­tic­u­lar excel­lence, has achieved what the brew­er intend­ed and “slips down nice­ly”. Inso­far as “slips down nice­ly” has a def­i­n­i­tion, I think this is a beer that may have a lin­ger­ing after­taste, but if it does, one that is pleas­ant. Many beers taste ok at the first blast, but after a pint your mouth feels like an unloved ash­tray. A clean beer would nev­er do this.

  11. This is how I under­stand it, cor­rect me if I’m wrong.

    Clean”: what­ev­er flavours the beer con­tains are dis­tinct and indi­vid­u­al­ly iden­ti­fi­able. Sep­a­rate, but com­ple­men­tary.
    “Mud­dy”: the flavours all merge togeth­er and become hard to iden­ti­fy.

    Its easy for bland beers to taste clean, because there are less flavours to get mud­dled up. A real­ly good beer is one that man­ages to be simul­ta­ne­ous­ly com­plex (ie sev­er­al dif­fer­ent strands of flavour) and clean (ie the dif­fer­ent flavours are all still dis­tinct and iden­ti­fi­able).

    Rather than a 1D line, I would sug­gest a 2D graph with com­plex­i­ty of flavour on one axis and clean­ness of flavour on the oth­er.

    1. Fun­ni­ly enough, that was some­thing like the first draft, but we could­n’t quite make sense of it.

      Don’t think you can be right or wrong on this because there’s no agreed def­i­n­i­tion.

  12. Is “funky” not a par­tic­u­lar flavour as well? That barn­yardy, slight­ly mouldy but strange­ly not unpleas­ant smell you get in gueuzes but not in faros?

    1. We haven’t just let you down; we haven’t just let blog­ging down; we’ve let *our­selves* down.

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