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12 best IPAs to suit every palate, from hoppy to mellower ales

These brew celebrate the complexity of the style in full force

Ella Buchan
Friday 04 June 2021 14:23 BST
<p>Our top 12 represent the complexity of the craft style</p>

Our top 12 represent the complexity of the craft style

India pale ales or IPAs are arguably the poster children of the craft beer movement. They also tend to be a little divisive. Some people love the hefty smack of hops they’ve become known for, actively seeking out the most eye-watering and lip-puckering beers imaginable to test their mettle. Double and triple IPAs, higher in alcohol and even heavier on the bitter hops, take this right to the limit.

Others, though, actively avoid them. But, while the more intense American-style IPAs – packed tightly with bold citrus, pine and grassy hops – have come to characterise the category, there’s more variety than many people might think.

The original style of IPA is the English or British style, usually a burnished gold in colour and more akin to a traditional ale than the hazy New England IPAs that have come to dominate the market. And, while the turbo-charged IPAs and American hops are still hugely popular, more brewers are returning to mellower and more approachable styles.

Michael Alcock, CEO of craft beer retailer HonestBrew, thinks this trend is likely to continue. “Brewers have started to rebel and embrace more old-school approaches,” he says. “More balanced and bitter beers are hitting the market, while innovation has enabled lower-ABV IPAs to emerge as full-bodied as the stronger offerings.”

Given their popularity and the broad – and ever-growing – range of IPA styles out there, it can be quite overwhelming to know what might best suit your palate. With that in mind, we’ve sipped through a wide selection to cherry pick a top 12 that best represents the complexity of the style.

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The best IPAs for 2021 are:

  • Best overall –ShinDigger shingri-la east coast IPA, 440ml: £4.25,
  • Best for surprising flavours – Adnams New England IPA, 12 x 330ml: £22.99,
  • Best for complexity –Quantock Brewery titanium west coast IPA, 440ml: £3.25,
  • Best for sunshine in a glass – Villages Brewery rafiki session IPA, 330ml: £2.95,
  • Best for pairing with food – Electric Bear above the clouds IPA, 440ml: £4.75,
  • Best for old-school flavours – Empress Ale IPA, 12 x 330ml: £29,
  • Best for sipping in the sun – Seven Brothers juicy IPA, 330ml: £1.70,
  • Best thirst quencher – Amity party ice cold IPA, 440ml: £4.50,
  • Best beer with purpose – Really Good Beer Society tidal save session IPA, 330ml: £2.40,
  • Best easy-drinker – Fourpure session IPA, 330ml: £1.80,
  • Best for hearty flavours – St Peter’s India pale ale, 12 x 500ml: £26,
  • Best for mellow maltiness – Shepherd Neame India pale ale, 500ml: £1.80,

ShinDigger shingri-la east coast IPA, 6.5%, 1 x 440ml

Best: Overall

Part of this Manchester brewery’s east coast series of IPAs, and with the hazy appearance and tropical fruit notes associated with the style, this pours like cloudy apple or pineapple juice and – though it isn’t in any way intensely sweet or cloying – has subtle hints of those fruits. Its colour is pale chartreuse and aromas of white peach and pineapple are balanced with malty, nutty, savoury flavours that border on herbaceous.

Throw in pretty floral notes, pink grapefruit, a drizzle of honey and a hint of brown butter and it’s a miracle it feels so mellow and well-balanced. But no flavour outdoes any other; they huddle and sway in unison rather than jostling for attention. The fine, mousse-y bubbles and dry finish make it dangerously easy to sip, too.

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Adnams New England IPA, 6%, 12 x 330ml

Best: For surprising flavours

This hazy, golden beauty dances between tropical fruits, bitter pine, smoky sweetness and an almost marine tang. It pours on the frothy side, with fine, smooth bubbles that never veer towards the gassy side, and manages to balance a complex and unusual array of flavours.

We found it a little savoury, with salty, nutty, woody notes, lifted by notes of pineapple and lightly charred orange peel (like the kind you get in hip cocktail bars). The finish is unusual, too, with the texture and flavour of brown butter cut through by the clean, crisp citrus qualities.

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Quantock Brewery titanium west coast IPA, 5.1%, 1 x 440ml

Best: For complexity

We knew this was going to be delicious as soon as we poured it, revealing a marshmallowy froth and a hazy, peachy-pink golden hue. That might suggest it’s sweet and simple, though it’s neither, really. There are classic west coast characteristics of bitter pine and citrus, though it also brings in charred pineapple, hay and a smokiness that’s reminiscent of a tangy brie.

The creamy texture and mousse-like bubbles mean it slips down easily, though its potent flavours – beautifully balanced as they are – might not appeal to those who prefer fruitier styles. Those who love peaty whiskies, though, are likely to adore it. This would stand up wonderfully to a range of foods, too, from peppery stews to strong cheeses.

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Villages Brewery rafiki session IPA, 4.3%, 1 x 330ml

Best: For sunshine in a glass

London-based Villages Brewery has somehow managed to bottle – or, rather, can – the taste of spring sunshine. Its rafiki session IPA is a pale, hazy, orange-tinged caramel in colour, which is reflected in flavours of apricot, mango and white blossom.

It’s like peaches soaked in honey, with the liquid drained off, topped with crisp, fine bubbles and toughened up with a robust, but still subtle, hint of hops. It’s not too heavy on the hop-front at all though and its balance of smooth maltiness and subtle flavours like hazelnut, caramel, burnt sugar and stone fruit should make it a real crowd-pleaser.

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Electric Bear above the clouds IPA, 6.2%, 1 x 440ml

Best: For pairing with food

This is one of those beers that just keeps delivering. The first arrival is an intense hit of zingy, vibrant fizz, followed up by a creamy, almost buttery, mouthfeel. That all falls back to reveal bitter notes of green walnut, the smooth sweetness of pale, set honey and the sunniness of some fruits.

It’s subtly sweet and juicy but never cloying, has a savoury character without ever being unpleasant or hard to drink, and brings bitterness that isn’t overpowering or lip-puckering. Pairing with food brings the stone-fruit flavours to the fore, with peach and apricot filling the mouth like fruity sunshine.

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Empress Ale IPA, 5.9%, 12 x 330ml

Best: For old-school flavours

The beautifully designed label gives a heavy hint that this is an IPA based on the original style, with hops added to the brew in the 18th century so the beer could survive the long journey from Britain to India. So, while its caramel, nutty notes and amber hue might seem to belong to a bitter rather than an IPA, this is actually how they used to be. Or, more likely, far better and more sophisticated than they used to be.

Flavour-wise, it delivers a burst of orange peel, softened by a mild, almost malty sweetness and a touch of toffee. Hearty enough to serve with a stew or roasted meats, yet also beautifully refreshing, it manages to be both complex and very easy to drink. It finishes crisply, with a lingering slick of honey.

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Seven Brothers juicy IPA, 6%, 1 x 330ml

Best: For sipping in the sun

Some fruit-driven IPAs can be overpowered by an almost synthetic sweetness. Not this one, which bursts with tropical fruits and tangerine zing complemented by peach, white flowers, pistachio, honey and a touch of toast.

This is a joyously sunny sipper, perfect for a picnic or barbecue, with fine, soft bubbles that make it easy to drink, too – perhaps dangerously so, given its six per cent ABV. With a hazy, pale yellow colour, well-rounded texture and balanced flavours, this should appeal to people who might usually find IPAs too bitter or grassy, while also pleasing confirmed hop fans.

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Amity party ice cold IPA, 4.8%, 1 x 440ml

Best: Thirst quencher

This intensely refreshing beer from Amity, a brewery based in Pudsey, West Yorkshire, showcases just how dynamic the IPA category has become. This is a cold IPA, a kind of IPA and lager cross that’s become popular in the US, using pilsner malts, lager yeast and Nelson Sauvin hops – a variety from New Zealand often compared with that country’s grassy, gooseberry-like sauvignon blancs.

Like those wines, this should be served ice-cold and ideally in a chilled glass. Its clear, amber-gold hue belies its complexity. It’s surprisingly savoury, with aromas of herby olives, nuts and thyme, while fruity flavours of nectarine and peach – along with a little orange blossom honey – provide balance. Refreshing like a lager, yet robust like an IPA.

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Really Good Beer society tidal save session IPA, 3.7%, 12 x 330ml

Best: Beer with purpose

The first taste is of peach, unfurling into pineapple with a hint of herbs before finishing with toasty, slightly nutty flavours. This is an easy-drinker that’s instantly refreshing, yet with a lingering, relatively complex range of aromas that dance about the palate.

There’s also a hint of honey here, bringing a delicate sweetness without being cloying. You can sip it with a clear conscience, too, knowing that it’s both vegan-friendly and that a percentage of profits goes to charities that work to combat ocean plastics.

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Fourpure session IPA, 4.2%, 1 x 330ml

Best: Easy-drinker

This gloriously refreshing IPA is the kind you might crave after a long and/or hot day. In the glass, it has a clear, golden hue that tells you it’s going to be a thirst-quencher, and it is. The first flavours we picked up were of rose petals or Turkish delight, with pistachio, hazelnut, apricot and a little butteriness coming through.

It’s crisp and cool with a kind of warming, comforting undertone that hugs the throat, thanks to notes of caramel and buttered toast. A perfect crowd pleaser that’s nevertheless well crafted and complex.

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St Peter’s India pale ale, 5.5%, 12 x 500ml

Best: For hearty flavours

Packaged in a striking, medicine-style bottle, St Peter’s India pale ale is instantly evocative of the early English IPAs and its taste matches the look. It pours an appealing orange-tinged toffee colour, with equally appetising aromas of peach, apricot and caramel on the nose.

The hops are forward – pushy, even – but mellowed by the malty sweetness and fruitiness, with hints of hazelnut, lemon and petals lifting it further. A rounded yet refreshingly crisp finish makes this one that transcends seasons – equally at home with a bowl of stew in front of a cosy fire as accompanying burnt sausages at a summer barbecue.

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Shepherd Neame India Pale Ale, 6.1%, 1 x 500ml

Best: For mellow maltiness

The UK’s oldest brewery is another that’s bringing back the traditional style of IPA, and this is a fine example. Its colour evokes caramel and burnt butter and that’s indicative of at least some of the flavours on the palate. In many ways more like a malt-driven brown ale than what people might consider a “typical” IPA, it’s a beautifully balanced beer that’s classic, subtle and easy to drink.

With a round, almost buttery mouthfeel, a touch of baking spice and bitterness from the Kent-grown Fuggles hops, it packs a punch – but with its fist sheathed in a silky glove. Perfect with cheeses, hearty stews and spicy food, with its mellow bitterness a perfect counterbalance to strong flavours.

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The verdict: IPAs

For its almost miraculous ability to balance seemingly incompatible flavours – flowers, fruit, smokiness and sweetness – ShinDigger’s shingri-la east coast IPA was our stand-out favourite. Though the sheer variety of IPAs – and IPA styles – out there challenges the idea that they’re not for everybody. Having tasted dozens of beers with different flavour profiles and levels of hoppiness, we reckon there should be something to please even the most confirmed hop-phobic, as well as some incredible examples of IPAs that bring hops right to the fore while maintaining a lovely balance.

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