It’s hard to argue the appeal of the IPA. India Pale Ale is the most popular craft beer style in the U.S. The beer was first devised in the 1700s in order to keep ale fresh during the months-long journey from England to India.
A London brewer named Hodgson was the first to brew a strong, super-hopped beer — which he referred to as October Ale — for this express purpose. It arrived in India and was not only highly drinkable, but the flavors melded together so well during the trip it became the standard way to ship beer to the colonies in India.
After a massive boom in the late ’90s and into the early 2000s, which then became the broader craft beer boom, the IPA continues to reign supreme as a common craft beer style in the U.S., with many of the most famous iterations available on grocery store shelves from Tampa to Temecula. Which made us wonder: Which of these beers is the best based on taste alone? In order to get an answer, we bind taste-tested eight classics — check our method and results below!
Part 1: The Taste
Instead of branching out into the different IPA offshoots, we figured we’d stick to the classics. We picked Cigar City Jai Alai, Ballast Point Sculpin IPA, Goose Island IPA, Stone IPA, Founders All Day IPA, Bell’s Two-Hearted Ale, Lagunitas IPA, and Firestone Walker Union Jack.
Let’s get this IPA party started!
I got the aromas of guava, candied pineapple, grapefruit, and bright, floral scents before taking my first sip. The palate was full of tropical fruits like mangos and pineapple as well as candied orange peels, limes, and a nice hit of piney, bitter hops. It all ended with a nice mixture of bitter hops and sweet fruits.
On the nose, I found a lot of citrus flavors — predominantly lime, tangerine, and grapefruit. This is along with a strong pine flavor and just a hint of caramel malts landed on the palate. That evolved into ripe pineapple, lime zest, and a nice mix of bitter hops and sweet, candy-like malts.
This is a very aromatic beer. Right away, I was blown away by scents of tangerines, lemon zest, pineapple, and spicy, resinous hops. The sip opened a doorway to a world of freshly cut grass, tropical fruits, blood oranges, and dank, piney hops. The finish is a nice combination of sweet malts and citrus and resinous, subtly bitter hops.
The initial nosing revealed fewer hops aromas than anticipated. This is not to say that there weren’t noticeable scents. Sweet malts, subtle citrus zest, floral hops, and just a hint of pepper are there. But not a lot of hoppiness.
The palate was filled with notes of tropical fruits, fresh-cut grass, and floral, bitter hops. It all ended with a decent balance of malts and hops.
Taking a whiff of this mystery beer left my nose with potent scents of lemon peels, sweet malts, and a seemingly endless pine tree forest. To say it’s bold is an understatement. On the palate, I got ripe, tart grapefruit, bold pine, and a lot of bitter, floral hops. The finish is dry and fairly bitter… if you’re into that sort of thing.
A lot is going on with this beer. There’s a great deal of orange zest, grapefruit, lemongrass, and pine scents on the nose. The palate is a little thinner than the nose and that’s not such a bad thing. There are flavors of tangerine, lemon, subtly sweet males, and a nice, pleasing resin. The finish is dry, refreshing, and has a nice pine and citrus ending.
If there was a beer in this batch that could be described as dank, this would be it. Right away, aromas of resinous pine and grapefruit are at the forefront, with just a hint of sweet malts in the background. The flavor is all pine, citrus zest, tropical fruits, and a fair amount of bitterness at the end.
A lot is going on with this beer.
On the nose, the noticeable aromas are those of caramel malts, ripe grapefruit, mango, pineapple, and a nice floral backbone. This super hoppy beer carries flavors of juicy tangerine, fresh pineapple, mango, sweet, cereal notes, and a nice combination of tropical fruits and bitter, piney hops at the very end.
Part 2: The Ranking
A blind taste test can really prove eyeopening and this one definitely was for me. No stigmas. No preconceived ideas. Just the flavors.
From the final rankings below, it’s obvious that I prefer my IPAs more full-flavored and well-rounded than floral and bitter.
8) Stone IPA (Taste 5)
Average Price: $10.99 for a six-pack
First brewed to celebrate Stone’s anniversary in 1997, this has become one of the most popular West Coast-style IPAs in America. This pine and citrus, bitterly hopped IPA was brewed with a smattering of Magnum, Chinook, Centennial, Azacca, Calypso, Motueka, Ella, and Vic Secret hops.
When you have eight beers of this magnitude, there’s no shame in coming in eighth. If you’re a fan of citrus and pine and subtly bitter beers, this is your jam.
7) Lagunitas IPA (Taste 4)
Average Price: $8.99 for a six-pack
Lagunitas is well-known for its ability to craft well-made, super hoppy beers. Its flagship IPA, while loaded with hops, was created to be more of a well-rounded offering, with a better malt to hops ratio than its other West Coast counterparts. It’s highly crushable, refreshing, and well-suited for warm-weather drinking.
More well-balanced than Stone IPA, but it didn’t have as much malt character as was touted. Still filled with citrus and floral, bitter hops.
6) Ballast Point Sculpin IPA (Taste 7)
Average Price: $13.99 for a six-pack
There’s a reason Ballast Point Sculpin IPA is consistently ranked as one of the top IPAs in the world. This widely available, year-round offering from the San Diego brewery gets its bold, bright, citrus flavor from being hopped at five different stages in the brewing process.
In all honesty, it was a little surprising to find this highly regarded beer sitting so low on the list. I think it’s just a little too bitter and has a bit too much tart grapefruit flavor for my palate.
5) Goose Island IPA (Taste 6)
Average Price: $12.99 for a six-pack
This award-winning beer from Chicago’s Goose Island is lower in alcohol than some of the other IPAs on this list and that’s not necessarily a bad thing (for me!). Brewed with Pilgrim, Celeia, Cascade, and Centennial hops, along with 2-Row, Bon, Munich, and C-20 malts, this is a highly complex, supremely well-rounded beer.
While not a session beer, Goose Island IPA is lower in alcohol than most of the other well-known IPAs on the market. But just because it’s lower in alcohol, that doesn’t mean it’s any weaker in the flavor department.
4) Founders All Day IPA
Average Price: $20 for a 15-pack
When it comes to session IPAs, there’ no bigger name than Founders All Day IPA. This supremely balanced beer made with just the right ratio of malts, grains, and hops is crisp, crushable, and exactly the type of beer you’d want to stock for a sunny afternoon of drinking and playing yard games. This beer is so popular that Founders recently launched a complimentary wheat beer version.
I was very surprised to learn that this was Founders All Day IPA, as I didn’t expect it to have such strong aromas and flavor. It’s a little muted for bold West Coast IPA fans, but highly drinkable.
3) Cigar City Jai Alai (Taste 3)
Average Price: $11.99 for a six-pack
While Tampa’s Cigar City is a big name in the craft beer world, it didn’t start that way. It took the popularity of its flagship Jai Alai IPA to push it into the national forefront. Named for the super violent sport enjoyed in this region of Florida, this beer comes brewed with six different hops.
To be honest, this is my go-to IPA and I’m surprised it didn’t finish even higher than third. It’s highly drinkable and filled with fresh citrus flavors.
2) Firestone Walker Union Jack IPA (Taste 1)
Average Price: $9.99 for a six-pack
Firestone Walker Union Jack IPA is one of the most highly regarded West Coast IPAs. Its name is a reference to the homeland of one of its two founders. Brewed with CTZ, Cascade, and Centennial hops before being dry-hopped with Cascade, Centennial, Simcoe, Citra, Amarillo, and Chinook hops, this is truly a hop-head’s dream.
There’s a reason this OG West Coast IPA is still as popular today as it was more than a decade ago, when it was introduced. While loaded with bitter, floral hops, there’s a whole slew of other fruity, fresh flavors. I loved this one.
1) Bell’s Two-Hearted Ale (Taste 8)
Average Price: $10.99 for a six-pack
Michigan’s Bell’s Brewing has gained a reputation for crafting well-made, highly drinkable beers. Its version of the classic West Coast-style IPA is a little different from some of its rivals. Instead of being loaded with a half dozen varieties, Bell’s Two-Hearted is brewed solely with Centennial hops.
It shouldn’t be surprising that this beer took the top spot. It might be the most well-rounded of the bunch while still carrying a bright, piney hop aroma and flavor. A gem for any IPA lover and a champion in this blind test.
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