There was a time, not all that long ago, when a list of the best British beers would contain mostly brown coloured bitters. It might also include a dark beer or two and maybe a few lighter, golden ales, but the majority would be of a very similar style.
Nothing sour; probably no lagers; and certainly nothing flavoured with grapefruit or any other unusual ingredients. And it is likely that not many people would quibble too much over which beers were included or omitted.
These days however, there are so many great breweries producing different styles of beer, that finding just one other person to agree with your own top ten is an impossible task.
To give you an idea of the range and quality of British beers now available, this list includes ten very different styles produced from all over the land. It features breweries that have helped reshape the British beer landscape; breweries that are pushing flavour and innovation in new directions; and breweries who have survived from those dark days, some having upped their game to compete with the new kids on the block.
You may struggle to find anyone else who agrees entirely with our selection, but give them a go and we reckon you might just discover something that will find its way into your top ten.
How we tested
Our tester is an experienced beer writer and judge at competitions including the World Beer Awards. These beers were chosen for their exemplary flavours and brewing qualities besides being fine examples of each of the styles described. Consideration was also given to selecting beers that would have the largest possible appeal.
The best british beers for 2021 are:
- Best overall – Fyne Ales, jarl: £3.50, Pop-wines.com
- Best for a traditional ale– Timothy Taylor landlord: £1.95, Morrisons.com
- Best for a lager – Braybrooke keller lager: £2.80, Hopburnsblack.co.uk
- Best for an alcohol free beer – Bristol Beer Factory clear head: £2.09, Wisebartender.co.uk
- Best for a classic Scottish ale – Orkney dark Island: £2.99, Realalestore.co.uk
- Best for a fruity sour – Siren pompelmocello: £4.79, Honestbrew.co.uk
- Best for a hazy, juicy, modern beer – Cloudwater DDH pale: £4.75, Cloudwaterbrew.co
- Best for an original Burton IPA – Allsop’s india pale ale (for 12 bottles): £31.50, Bestofbritishbeer.co.uk
- Best for an organic ale – Stroud Brewery budding pale ale: £2.60, Abelandcole.co.uk
- Best for a London Porter – Anspach & Hobday the porter: £3.95, Hopburnsblack.co.uk
Fyne Ales jarl, 3.8%, 440ml
- Style: Session ale
- Strength: 3.8%
Scottish farm-based brewery Fyne Ales was one of the first in the UK to successfully use the American citra hop when it produced Jarl for its annual festival, Fyne Fest, in 2010. The beer was such an instant hit that it was quickly elevated to become part of the brewery’s core range and has proved to be its most popular release since.
Few beers can match it for its sessionability, and it’s the perfect example of a quality British beer fine-tuned for our modern times. The punchy kiwi and grapefruit flavours of the hops and a thirst-quenching citrus bitterness combine with a light malt body to make it as gluggable a beer as you could wish for. And with a strength just below 4 per cent having another won’t do you too much damage.
Timothy Taylor landlord, 4.1%, 500ml
Best: For a traditional ale
- Strength: 4.1%
- Style: Pale ale / bitter
When prizes for best British ale are awarded there’s a handful of established breweries that regularly share the spoils between them. Harveys, Fullers, St Austell, Adnams and Timothy Taylor are among them. Although its beers are markedly different to the discerning palate, we find it hard to separate them in terms of quality. In this list we’ve plumped for the one with the most prizes, Timothy Taylor landlord, a legendary Yorkshire ale launched nearly 70 years ago.
It has a pale amber colour and, on sniffing, your senses are greeted with an enticing aroma of fruity hops that you know is going to lead to a refreshing first sip. The complex flavours contain a hint of sweet biscuits and caramel, a flurry of floral notes, some bright and juicy fruit flavours and a hoppy, bitter finish. It’s very much an English ale, but one whose qualities are unmatched by anything else around.
Braybrooke keller lager, 4.8%, 330ml
Best: For a lager
- Strength: 4.8%
- Style: Lager
These days, lager drinkers have a vast range of top quality British products they can choose from. Among these are the consistently excellent Camden Brewery’s helles, which can be found just about everywhere and Lost & Grounded’s keller pils, which is becoming increasingly easier to find. But for those willing to look a little harder for their beers, we’re recommending Leicestershire’s Braybrooke keller lager.
Brewed along German lines it is full bodied and complex yet, like all the best lagers, provides a clean and easy drinking experience. It has sweet bready malt flavours that compliment the smooth mouthfeel and a subtle peppery hop bitterness that you would associate with quality German lagers, helping to give it a crisp, quenching finish. It’s the kind of beer that suits any occasion, will go down well with any food, and can be enjoyed by just about anyone.
Bristol Beer Factory clear head, 0.5%, 330ml
Best: For an alcohol free beer
- Strength: 0.5%
- Style: Alcohol free pale ale
One of the most positive trends in the current brewing scene is the rise in popularity of alcohol free beers (those below 0.5 per cent ABV). Breweries are now taking them more seriously than ever before and drinkers are, at long last, benefiting from a vast choice of exceptionally good beers (if only some supermarkets would expand their ranges to match).
Bristol Beer Factory is one such top drawer brewery who has taken up the challenge of brewing an AF beer and the results are excellent. Clear head has plenty of the citrus hop flavours that have been popular in pale ales for the past decade, and they’ve added a touch of lactose to give the body a creamier fullness that some AF beers can be accused of lacking. It tastes like a quality beer and, just as importantly, feels like a quality beer. They’ve also used the product to help promote mental health charity Talk Club, so it’s doing more than your own head some good.
Orkney dark Island, 4.6%, 500ml
Best: For a classic Scottish ale
- Strength: 4.6%
- Style: Old ale
If you’re looking for the taste of a classic Scottish beer, then the Orkney Isles is home to one of the best. Locals will insist that it’s the Orcadian water that makes all the difference to their beers, but the local brewery’s 30 plus years of experience is also essential.
Dark island is their flagship beer, and it’s an “old ale” that’s loaded with figgy fruit flavours, dark chocolate notes and some nutty depths. Dark and brooding, it quickly fills the mouth with rich malt flavours but, despite its intensity, you’ll find it easy to sink a pint or two in good time. For a steadier sip seek out the much stronger dark island reserve (10 per cent, £8.99, Realalestore.co.uk) that has been aged in whisky casks.
Siren pompelmocello, 6%, 440ml
Best: For a fruity sour
- Strength: 6%
- Style: Juicy grapefruit sour IPA
Modern brewers like to add extras to their beers besides the staple quintet of water, yeast, hops and barley (these extras are known as “adjuncts”). Pretty much any style can be found with a few unusual ingredients in the mix, but it’s often sour ales that lend themselves best to such a practice, particularly if the additions are fruit.
Siren has a long and successful track record of adjunct experimentation – sea buckthorn, cucumber and even mealworms have all featured in previous brews – but the popularity of pompelmocello sour IPA, loaded with grapefruit zest, led it to be added to its permanent list of beers. It’s even inspired some recent limited edition pompelmocello spin-offs, nitro, radler and DDH.
Alongside that sharp, fruity zest are three hops – ekuanot, bravo and mosaic – that also produce grapefruit aromas and flavours, while the addition of lactose gives it a touch of sweetness and a creamy mouthfeel. This is a well crafted, thoroughly modern beer – tart, tasty and definitely not an adjunct novelty.
Cloudwater DDH pale, 4.5%, 440ml
Best: For a hazy, juicy, modern beer
- Strength: 4.5%
- Style: DDH Pale Ales
Founded in 2014, Manchester’s Cloudwater is one of the UK’s craft ale trailblazers, setting the standard for many modern types of beer, particularly those with a hazy appearance and bold, juicy hop flavours. And this recommendation isn’t simply for a single beer, but a range of its DDH pale beers: another trend among craft breweries is releasing a succession of beers that follow a similar theme, but with differing hop combinations each time, and Cloudwater excels in this practice.
DDH means “double dry hopped”. Dry hopping refers to adding hops late in the brewing process, packing the beer with flavour rather than bitterness, and this brew contains double the amount of hops that the brewery uses in its regular beers. The beer’s natural cloudiness is often encouraged with special haze-inducing yeast. The modern hops fill the beer with such intense fruity citrus flavours that it makes it seem like fruit juice – if you’re keen to see what the fuss is about, we suggest Cloudwater is where you enter the haze craze.
Allsop’s india pale ale, 5%, 500ml, pack of 12
Best: For an original Burton IPA
India pale ale has spawned so many style variations of late (NEIPA, DIPA and the oxymoronic Dark IPA to name just three) that many drinkers may wonder what the original style tastes like. Allsop’s should know the answer. The family brewery lays claim to producing the original Burton IPA 200 years ago and, after closing in 1959, they reopened earlier this year with some old recipes to plunder.
The 2021 incarnation has a biscuity malt background with a few flavours of dark fruits and sweet marmalade swirling around, which is penetrated by an earthy, spicy bitterness that leads to a long-lasting, dry finish. It’s a welcome return, adding a traditional quality to the vast choice of IPAs currently on the market.
Stroud Brewery budding pale ale, 4.5%, 440ml
Best: For an organic ale
- Strength: 4.5%
- Style: Pale ale
Stroud Brewery’s range of beers is mostly of the classic kind, including pale ales, stouts, IPAs and lagers, but there’s a key component that sets them apart from most other breweries: they are all made from organic malt and hops.
Its original, and most popular beer, Budding (named after the Stroud engineer who invented the lawnmower) is a full flavoured pale ale, with a sweet, malty base that is very much in the English style. It has a few upfront citrussy notes, courtesy of Amarillo hops, that helps give it a contemporary twist and a creeping bitter finish that rounds off the flavours in a satisfying way. Quality ingredients in expert hands.
Anspach & Hobday the porter, 6.7%, 440ml
Best: For a London Porter
- Strength: 6.7%
- Style: Porter
Porter is one of the most enduring styles in British brewing, with London being its original home, and the capital currently has plenty of craft breweries creating excellent examples of the style. Five Points Railway porter is well worth trying, as is this exceptional dark drop, produced at Anspach & Hobday’s new brewery in Croydon.
It has lots of the flavours you would associate with stouts and porters including roasted coffee and dark chocolate. Those chocolatey flavours extend to a cocoa bitterness and there’s a slight fruity tang that, along with a relatively high 6 per cent ABV, elevates it from many other porters on the market.
The verdict: British beers
Each one of these beers is excellent and provides just a snapshot of the diversity and quality in British brewing right now. But for drinkability, brewing craft and a flavour that will suit traditional and modern tastes, we think Fyne Ales jarl has the broadest appeal.
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We’ll drink to this round-up of the best IPAs to suit every palate
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