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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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

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