A Beer Judge’s Diary: What Do We Mean by “Clean?”

By Ken Carman
By Ken Carman
 I’ve seen the word used so many times in judging. I thought I knew what it means and that includes what, to me, is only one contradiction. I had thought “clean” meant no fermentation by products that stand out and interfere with the malt, the hops and whatever else defines a style that has no yeast funk. The contradiction? Well, it’s the Germans who, as the cliché’ goes, must have everything precise, exact, just so. OK, I know that’s stereotyping but I’m only mentioning the perception, I have known plenty of Germans who are definitely not that way.
 To be clean and be German in this sense seems to be defined as no fruity, funky, significant DMS or buttery/diacetyl-like esters. Unfortunately that often doesn’t seem to be include a light sulfur-sense to some Germans, which I find their much treasured lager yeast sometimes provides. Not all the time, but a lot.
 OK, I admit: like some are sensitive to butter maybe I’m sensitive to sulfur? Possibly because a little butter bothers me not, but I REALLY dislike sulfur?
 Going beyond German preferences, when we judge what do we mean by “clean?” I thought I knew until during my perpetuate Guideline studies I was going over Australian Sparkling Ale.

 “Relies on yeast character.”
 ”…light touch of banana…”
 ”…light, yeasty, sulfury nose.”
 ”Medium-high to medium-low esters, often pears and apples.”

  That last one is in flavor, but there’s nothing that excludes it from aroma. And if it’s in flavor I would assume aroma isn’t a no no unless specified.
 So now the kicker, from Aroma…

 ”Fairly soft, clean (my emphasis) aroma with a balance of mixed esters.”

 ”Clean” yet with so many yeast driven esters? So with an added, “What am I missing?” I ask…

 “What do we mean by ‘clean?’”

 I admit I wrote this because I understand either I’m missing something, or our usage is so fluid it alters radically according to what style we’re judging. But to me that seems as if the term becomes somewhat useless: so loosely defined it’s to the point of “why bother?” Should it be tightened up, better defined? I thought about this a lot and decided to give it a shot. Perhaps we’re attempting to describe that almost indescribable sense of a fresh, unpolluted breeze? If this were a Gose, with a slight salt sense to that “breeze?” I may be mistaken but it seems we often use “clean” to describe a lack of fermentation products like banana, pears, apples (etc), and in my case, sulfur. One could use it as “inappropriate for the style” but then wouldn’t every style of beer in the Guidelines, and eventually “to appear in the Guidelines;” even a style with the most outlandish funk qualify as “clean?” Seems a tad too wide, too loose, a definition to me.
 I guess the old English major is foaming up to the top of my very personal pint glass, like a well poured Guinness. I understand the BJCP: as mentioned in the introduction, doesn’t want to become the word police, or have us focus too much on specific words. But words have to mean something for those who enter to understand what we mean. So perhaps such terms need a little more clarification? Wouldn’t hurt… especially for new and inexperienced judges.


A Beer Judge’s Diary is one of many columns by Ken Carman, Certified BJCP beer judge, homebrewer since 1979 and seeker of both simple and complex quaffs who once upon a time thought he didn’t care all that much for beer. Then he discovered brews beyond the standard fare’ available on the east coast in the 60s. Thus the adventure began.

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