Blue Collar Brew Review – Sierra Nevada Hoptimum Whole-Cone Imperial IPA

Tonight we taste the last of the Father’s Day beers obtained at Binny’s last June. I know I have two bombers of Georgian Terrapin beer still keeping their cool in the beer fridge, but tonight, the scent of hops was in the air. Yep. It’s gonna be another IPA, this one from Sierra Nevada.

Hoptimum Whole-Cone Imperial IPA boasts 10.4% ABV but with a relatively affordable, almost expected price tag of ten bucks for the four-pack. The carton was rendered in green and the main logo depicted a drawing of an 19th century hophead. The label touted, “The Ultimate Whole-Cone Hop Experience.” But hell, since the beer was calling itself an Imperial IPA, I expected hop bitterness in abundance. But what was this whole-cone stuff all about?

After spending four weeks under the lamp table in my bedroom, I finally dragged out the Hoptimum and stashed it in the beer fridge out in the Manly Garage, having it wait another two weeks before I finally got around to popping the first cap.

Saturday, the weather was gorgeous with temps in the low 80s and by the evening it was a pleasant 76° in the garage. As I set up the MacBook and did a little research on the beer, I had that dread that the readers may be getting tired of too many IPAs being reviewed and that at 10.4% alcohol, my keystrokes may start getting slurred. I had one small thought about reviewing the Terrapin beer at the last minute, but said, “Screw it” and “Damn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead!” Let’s have an IPA again!

My take on Sierra Nevada and their brewing reputation goes as follows: they make damn good beer. But it seemed to be slightly above middle-of-the-road. Their Torpedo, Kellerweiss and Bigfoot Barleywine seemed to step over the line or out-of-bounds on one taste issue or another. Wrong hops. Hops when I wasn’t expecting any. Or some other personal tongue related issue. That was probably why I waited so long to try their Hoptimum. Or that I was skittish about the high ABV.

But I was in the mood for something other than a brown ale or a Kölsch. This Hoptimum would do and do nicely, I thought. When the time came, I grabbed the first of the four-pack and popped the cap.

The beer poured into the glass generating a nice, slightly off-white head of about 1 1/2”. The liquid was an orange-brown in color and somewhat opaque but there were a lot of micro-bubbles rising as if in slow motion. The aroma held numerous scents: hops in front, sweet malt with a little bit of orange or mango thrown in the mix.

The first sip was amazing! Big bold body in the beer filled up the mouth with a thick feeling viscousness. Hop flavors enjoined the middle of the sip while the bitter swallow held tastes of pine. Gotta get the palate used to the newcomer.

After about the fifth sip, a small bit of heat became apparent in the gut. Not a lot, but enough to make it noticeable and remind me that the beer contained 10.4% alcohol. I didn’t get any of that in the tastes. Little sips, I reminded myself. Little sips.

The hop bitterness in this beer is over the top, but it’s not a mortar blast to the back of the throat. More like the teeth of bandsaw slowly cutting away the tonsils. SN has the beer at 100 IBUs and I believe it. But this beer is not a platform for a hop bitterness demonstration. There is a nice blend with the malts and the sweetness that make this beer special.

Tropical fruits became more apparent as the sips went on. Mango, yes, and maybe some nectarine, a tad bit of pineapple, and a touch of grapefruit. The beer was like a wild west rodeo show of tropical tastes right in my yap with the cutting edge of saber hops at the swallow.

Halfway down into the first glassful, the foam damn near disappeared but a nice lacing remained behind coating the insides of the glass. Surely this was a sign from the beer gods or the sign of a quality brew.

The whole-cone hops may be what made this beer so special. The hop bitters were sharper than other DIPAs I’ve had, and yet they played nice with the sweet and the malt. Throughout the entire range of flavors contained in each sip, the hops stand out at the end. I likened this to lit flashlight under the bed covers. You can’t tell it’s a flashlight, but you can see the light.

This beer was a true Imperial IPA, although it does push the envelope a little according to the BJCP styles book. The book has 10% as the upper ABV limit, while this beer is 4-tenths higher. It does not go to eleven.

Whole cone hop

Pellet hops

Leaf hops

Hop extract


Whole-cone hopping in this beer is a bit different from SN’s Celebration Ale which uses fresh cone hops. Whole cones of hops rather than hop pellets, hop leaves or hop extract were used in the making of this beer. Fresh cone hopping (Celebration) is brewing a beer with the hop cones freshly picked at the hop farm and used within a day or two of picking. From farm to beer. That freshness is what makes Celebration a bit different from other IPAs. Or is it? I think so.

Each new sip was as enjoyable as the previous one and the more I sipped, the more the flavors became pronounced. More sweetness, more tropical fruit flavors but still the same stiletto stab of the hops as it was swallowed. The warmer the beer got, the mellower it tasted. I had briefly entertained a thought of having an IPA at least once per week. But that would not allow me time to sample the other diverse tastes that brewers and their beers offer.

Sierra Nevada’s Hoptimum Whole-Cone Imperial IPA is an amusement park full of flavor in a 12-ounce bottle. This one ranks up in the top ten on my mental list of favorite IPAs. You know, Double Jack, Arctic Panzer Wolf, etc. This one is unique in that the hop bitterness, while balancing perfectly with the malt flavors and tropical fruit notes, has a special Wilkinson Sword-like sharpness. It’s like Zombie Dust with razor blades. SN should call it a “honed-cone” IPA.

I can’t render a judgement as to whether whole-cone hopping made a difference in the taste of this beer, or if it was just the selection of hops and the brewing process that made this beer so different. Someone with more experience should decide. But this was one unique brewski. If you told me that this beer was brewed by either DogFish Head or Three Floyds, I’d believe it right away. I entertained thoughts of mentioning that Sierra Nevada was finally going hardcore and experimenting with ingredients and mixtures.

I regret waiting this long to drink this beer. If you run across this beer in your travels, snatch it up in a nanosecond. You can’t beat the price for this adventure in beer taste.

The SixPackTech summary for Sierra Nevada Hoptimum Whole-Cone Imperial IPA are :

Taste: A tropical paradise with an obstacle course.
Smoothness: Really nice. And, there’s a prize at the bottom of every sip.
Drinkability: One sip will have your mouth begging for another.
Bang for the buck: Great for what’s in the bottle.
ABV: 10.4%
Paid price: $9.99
Get it again? Absolutely. Yes and  fo’ sho’.
Brewer’s website
Wife’s all-encompassing opinion: Cloudy. (sniff) Fruity. (sip, wierd look. Another sip) This is gonna sound really weird but it’s sweet and bitter at the same time. Grapefruit with a lot of sugar on it. A little drying but just for a few seconds. (sip) Kinda strange. (sip) It’s all there almost instantly but not. (What’s the difference between a duck? One leg is both the same.)

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