You may recall a piece that I published back in February, which bore a snappy title and simple opinion: “Let’s Face It: Waxed Beer Bottles Suck.” This wasn’t a thesis formed apropos of nothing; it was a long-simmering distaste for the hassle of cutting through waxed beer bottles, combined with research I’d been doing on the scientific side of this debate, which suggests there’s very little difference between waxed and unwaxed bottles in terms of how well they preserve the beer. And it all came to a head after the Paste blind style tasting for January, which pitted us against an absurd 144 barrel-aged imperial stouts. In that one tasting, we hacked our way through a veritable sea of wax, and the result was my previous anti-wax screed.
After that piece was published I received a good number of comments from readers who suggested a variety of better ways than carelessly hacking at the wax-covered bottles with a sharp knife, a tactic that I had brought to the zenith of its potential utility. Instead, readers began suggesting an array of wax cutters and openers specifically designed for these tasks. Leave it to the craft beer community to come up with a solution—and one that crafters can sell for a tidy profit, at that.
The tools suggested to me varied in cost, utility and function, but they all promised to be able to remove wax from bottles. Some, like the YOpener, could scarcely be more simple: Just a small set of metal teeth to be twisted around the wax. Others, such as the Whale Shark, open bottles with a different motion entirely, tearing up through the wax rather than cutting around it. Still others such as the nigh-mythical WhaleSlayer are more expensive specialty items, functioning as art pieces just as much as they are practical tools. Realizing that there was quite a bit of variety here, I decided to get examples of all three and put them to the test.
It was here that I ran into a bit of a snag. Obtaining the wax cutters themselves was easy—the companies were quite generous in providing them after I inquired, with the makers of the YOpener even engraving our example with the Paste logo. What provided more of a challenge was providing an even playing field of wax for the test.
Initially, I figured “Well, I’ll just go out and get some waxed bottles,” but it didn’t take long to see that idea was impractical, for the following reasons:
A. It would be prohibitively expensive to buy that many bottles of waxed beers, which are likely to be prestige imperial stouts or something equally pricey.
B. It would mean opening a large number of these expensive, likely high-ABV beers all at once, which isn’t something we’re planning to do outside a large-scale bottle share.
C. The wax itself would vary so much as to render the test moot. From bottle to bottle, types and textures of wax can be wildly different. What I needed was some kind of uniformity.
The choice was obvious. The only way that I was going to get consistent results in terms of waxing would be to wax a bunch of bottles myself! And so that’s what I did, filling them with water to simulate the proper weight and heft of a 22 oz beer bottle. I found the waxing process both amusing and annoying—it turns out that you really have to apply repeated, successive coats if you want to build up a good, thick layer, but I eventually prevailed. BEHOLD!
Now I’m ready to remove some wax.
The first tool we tested is known as the YOpener, as they’re one of the most common and widely available of these custom wax cutters. The design is very simple, as each YOpener is simply a piece of wood, commonly made from bourbon or wine barrel staves, with a half moon indentation in the middle that is fitted with a metal wax cutter. They’re made by a man named John Miller and are readily available via Etsy, running from about $23 to $35, depending on optional engravings.
It’s worth mentioning that the YOpeners also support good causes, at least on occasion. Miller manufactures them as a project with his son, who is blind and autistic, and I’ve been told that some of the proceeds go to support charities for autism, although I can’t find explicit reference to it on the Etsy or the YOpener Facebook page. But it’s a nice sentiment, regardless.
In terms of operation, a YOpener is pretty simple. One simply fits the half-moon portion of the tool around the neck of the bottle, grips the opposite end of the bottle neck with the thumb, and rotates the bottle with the other hand. As the bottle rotates, the piece of metal makes an incision in the wax. Once a deep enough cut has been made and a layer of wax has been stripped away, you can use the built-in bottle opener or your bottle opener of choice to pry off the bottle cap, although all of these openers also go out of their way to promise that they “won’t damage the cap.” Apparently there are more bottle cap collectors out there than I realized?
The YOpener strikes me as a simple, non-flashy, effective tool. It’s simple to operate, and there’s a 0% chance of hurting yourself while using one. If anything, I wish that the piece of metal used for wax cutting had more of an edge on it, or was larger. I’m not sure how this thing will hold up in the long run, but at $23 for a regular one, it’s not like you’re making much of an investment. If you hate trying to awkwardly open wax bottles with a knife, this thing might be exactly what you’ve been waiting for.
These cute little guys are both similar and dissimilar in various ways to the YOpener. They’re both made of wood and are similar in dimensions and heft, but the actual mechanic of using them to cut wax/open bottles is a bit different.
The Whale Shark is manufactured by Trabuco Canyon Barrel Works from Trabuco Canyon, CA, and is likewise available via Etsy, just like the YOpener. It’s also similar in terms of price range: $25 for the basic model, and up to $32 depending on if you want some custom engraving, which seems pretty damn cheap to us considering the extra work it would no doubt entail.
There’s some variance in terms of the cutting implement you’ll find on them, depending on which model you get. TCBarrelWorks was kind enough to send us a couple different variants, so we could see how they varied. Some have a smooth blade, which needs to be drawn across the neck of the bottle in a similar manner to the YOpener, but the “pushing forward” nature of the Whale Shark makes this way of using them a bit more difficult. I preferred the “teeth” model that approximated shark teeth—with this one, instead of cutting around the neck while you rotate with your free hand, you can dig right in through the wax and yank the cap off in one swift motion. Of course, this motion strikes me as something that might be dependent upon the quality of the wax—soft wax would make this significantly easier than hard wax.
Overall, the Whale Shark design is plenty charming, and I didn’t really have any trouble using it to open my waxed bottles, but it strikes me as placing slightly more value on form rather than function, compared to the YOpener. In the end, you’re probably going to have little trouble opening a bottle with either of them, and your decision would come down to design vs. pure utility.
Will the real whale in the room please stand up? Behold, the WhaleSlayer. These things are heavy duty art pieces that double as fearsome wax cutters and bottle openers. You may never have seen one before, because there are probably only a few hundred in existence. They’re also considerably more expensive than the last two wax cutters, for obvious reasons.
This is the only one of the wax cutters we didn’t get shipped to the Paste office, which wasn’t surprising, given that I hear the waiting list for buying WhaleSlayers is currently somewhere in the two year range. They’re all manufactured by a man named James R. Clark, described to me as living “in the middle of nowhere, Mississippi,” where he’s fond of blacksmithing, chugging extremely rare beers and flipping middle fingers at the establishment. He also makes some seriously badass wax-cutters.
Picking up one of these WhaleSlayers simply feels powerful. They’re all solid metal, largely made from reclaimed railroad spikes. The degree of working and shaping that Clark has done upon those spikes is remarkable. From relatively simple bottle-openers like the “Punisher,” to full on WhaleSlayers with twists or cubic designs running down the shaft, they’re all beautiful. The WhaleSlayers in particular look like a fantasy weapon out of Lord of the Rings—as a child, this is more or less how I imagined the Nazgul blade that stabbed Frodo on Weathertop. Just look at that cruel instrument. I can’t imagine walking down the street with one without being stopped by the police.
In terms of cutting through waxed bottles, the WhaleSlayer operates somewhat similarly to the YOpener, but the added heft is helpful. The double-hooked portion that looks like a blade isn’t meant for cutting (it doesn’t have an edge), but instead digs into the wax while held in place by your thumb on the opposite side of the bottle neck. Once you’ve dug the hook in, it’s as simple as just rotating the bottle with your free hand, which produces a very pleasing curl of wax as it separates from the bottle. As with the other openers, you can then pop off the cap at your leisure. Easy peasy. Of all three openers, I’d probably say that the WhaleSlayer cuts through the wax most easily, although the difference isn’t so big as to be important. If you’re buying one of these, you’re buying it for the look and the feel.
The standard WhaleSlayer costs $50-65, depending on what detailing you want and how you want it fashioned. However, the “GIANT,” thicker WhaleSlayer you can see in some of the promotional photos (about ¾ inch diameter) runs closer to $120, making it a costly wax cutter indeed. Still, that hasn’t stopped beer fans from snapping them up, as the waiting list is apparently stretching into the years now. If you have the coin to drop, it’s quite the discussion piece to whip out at a bottle share.
In the end, I feel we should all continue to agree on one thing: Waxed bottles still suck. The industry-wide trend toward smaller bottle sizes and canning is a godsend as far as the issue of wax is concerned—as more barrel-aged beers find their way into 12 oz bottles and cans, the less wax we’ll see as a result. The increasing “beer IQ” of the average consumer may also come into play here—the more the consumer knows about barrel-aged beer, the more they’ll understand that these styles always command higher price tags without needing the visual indicator of wax to tell them “this bottle is special, and thus expensive.”
Still, in the meantime, these wax cutters serve a valuable purpose, especially if you’re opening up large numbers of bottles on a regular basis. I badly wish we’d had one of them—any of the three above—the last time we blind-tasted imperial stouts at Paste, because they would have saved us a lot of grief. If we didn’t have them in the office now, I’d invest in one in a heartbeat. Anything to butcher that wax more efficiently.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer guru. He’s still not fond of wax, which may have come across in the piece above. You can follow him on Twitter.