There’s no way around it. Beer geeks know it to be true. Casual beer consumers know it to be true. Brewery owners know it to be true. It’s just true. It’s a truism. And it’s this:
Waxed beer bottles suck. And it’s time for the beer industry to do away with them as a whole.
I used to throw cork-and-caged bottles into this same arena, but my ire for them has decreased over time, while my annoyance with waxed bottles has risen in its stead. Even at their most obstinate, a corked bottle can be opened through enough application of brute force to twist or jimmy the cork out of the way. A waxed bottle, on the other hand? Some of them are nightmarishly hard to open, and maddeningly frustrating. This might be okay, if there was some kind of data to prove they served a function, but guess what: That data doesn’t exist. More on that shortly.
This is something that has become much more clear to us at Paste in the last few months. In January, we conducted a blind tasting and ranking of 102 non-barrel-aged imperial stouts. In February, it was barrel-aged imperial stout’s turn, and we blind-tasted a whopping 144 of them in a ranking that just went live minutes ago. Do you have any idea how many of those bottles were waxed? In the course of a month, I probably opened 75 waxed beer bottles, largely with the sharpest knife available in the Paste office. And in doing so, I’ve assembled the following reasons why it’s only logical that waxed bottles go the way of the Dodo.
The most obvious reason is also the most pertinent, because waxed bottles are an unending chore to open. In fact, the more of them I open, the more I realize that I don’t even understand how the breweries want me to open them. Is there a better method I don’t know about, rather than awkwardly trying to cut into it with a sharp knife? Do the guys who own breweries have to struggle in exactly the same way to open their own beers? Or do they have some kind of Dr. Seussian machine they can put these waxed bottles through?
I won’t pretend that they’re all hard to open, though. Lately, I’ve come to realize that this depends on the wax itself, or the application of that wax. It can make some waxed bottles merely “annoying,” while others become infuriating.
Of paramount importance is this question: How soft is the wax? If it’s hard and brittle, this is ideal—it allows you to chip off large chunks at a time, or simply shatter the wax over the crown cap and open the bottle without much difficulty. If the wax is hard, then the bottle rarely puts up a fight. However, when the wax is soft, things get 10 times harder. Instead of breaking off in large pieces, the knife shaves off slivers of wax, and the substance clings stubbornly to the top of the metal crown cap like it’s glue or epoxy. We had a few of these waxed bottles during the barrel-aged stout tasting that resulted in 10 minutes or more of struggling, sweating and chipping away, covering the tasting table with little strips of wax shaved from the bottle. Worse, when you have to mangle the wax in this fashion, you’re all the more likely to get little bits of wax (or glass) falling into the bottle once it’s opened.
Take a look at the photo at the top of this page. Do you know what knobby bit is? It’s a waxed bottle from the stout tasting that included a small strip under the wax, which is supposed to aid in opening. However, this pull-off tab fails to function properly in the case of one specific scenario: IF YOU COMPLETELY ENCASE IT IN ANOTHER EXTRA-THICK LAYER OF WAX. That’s what this brewery did, rendering the pull-tab totally pointless. You could tug on it all you wanted, but it’s not going anywhere. This is the definition of irritation.
This is beer, people. It’s not supposed to be this difficult. Yes, some sort of specialized tool or wine/wax cutter might be helpful for opening these bottles, but that’s ignoring the fact that you shouldn’t need special tools to open a beer bottle, beyond a bottle opener.
Moments before disaster.
The boilerplate answer that any brewery using waxed bottles will likely give you if you ask about them is that they “protect the beer better” from oxidation by increasing the strength of the seal between the beer and the air outside. Sounds good, right? Sure, it sounds great, except there’s really no evidence of this either way. Although many studies have been done on the permeability of gases through intentionally porous wine corks, and those studies have shown wax’s ability to keep air from passing through a wine cork, there haven’t been any scientific studies of wax’s effectiveness on a beer bottle. Unlike wine corks, which are designed to be porous, beer bottles are sealed with crown caps, and modern crown caps actually do a really good job of keeping air out of the bottle all on their own. Just look at a 10-year-old bottle of Sierra Nevada Bigfoot, which ages gracefully rather than oxidizing to high hell.
So, why do beers oxidize at all, then? It’s largely because of the small amounts of air introduced during the bottling process itself. It’s these gases, already inside the bottle, that lead to the slow change in beer flavors over time. It’s not the result of air somehow squeaking past your crown caps, unless those caps have been applied faultily. Which is to say, wax simply isn’t necessary.
Moreover, if the cause of oxidation actually was air entering from outside the bottle, and wax was able to completely halt that process, then applying wax to beer bottles would serve the exact opposite of the stated purpose. If your goal is to age your beer and reap the perceived benefits and chemical changes that age brings, then slow oxidization is something you should want, not something you should be trying to prevent.
We’ve never done any blind tasting with a higher percentage of the entries in 22 oz and 750 ml bottles as these stout tastings, and there’s no secret as to why this is. Breweries put their most prestigious releases—and imperial stouts almost always fall into this category—into large format bottles to communicate to the customer base “this is a special beer.” It’s one of the only ways that a brewery can specifically instill the notion of “this is worth paying more money” into a consumer’s mind. You may be thinking “Well, I know that I’ll always have to pay more for a barrel-aged imperial stout,” but don’t forget that the average beer drinker is not you, because the “average” beer drinker isn’t spending their spare time searching for articles about waxed beer bottles.
The real purpose of wax, therefore, is largely aesthetic. It looks cool, and more importantly it communicates to the customer that the contents of this bottle are “rare” and thus worth spending more money. Breweries can automatically charge more for waxed bottles, and of course they take full advantage of that opportunity. We can certainly understand it, but that doesn’t mean we have to be happy about it.
Now, though, the beer packaging market is changing once again. Consumer interest in large format bottles seems to be waning, and liquor stores are shrinking their bomber and 750 ml bottle selections to make room for more 6-packs and 4-packs. 16 oz cans have found great popularity as a midpoint in volume between 12 oz bottles/cans and 22 oz bottles, and breweries are moving core brands from larger bottles to smaller ones. Meanwhile, breweries such as Sun King or Oskar Blues have led the way in terms of putting their big barrel-aged beers and “prestige” beers into cans or smaller bottles. One taste of Oskar Blues BBA Ten FIDY, and it’s clear that these beer styles are just as awesome coming out of a can as they are a bottle, and it comes with the bonus of avoiding wax entirely!
The entire market is seeing these changes, and the issue keeps coming up in my own conversations with brewmasters and brewery owners. Only a month ago, I spoke with Firestone Walker brewmaster Matt Brynildson about the brewery’s decision to discontinue 22 oz bottles entirely, moving everything into 12 oz and 375 ml packaging—including the likes of their barrel-aged imperial stout, Parabola. Earlier this month, when I talked with Green Flash owner Mike Hinkley, he suggested that his own brewery was considering a very similar move.
Large format bottles are on the downswing, and if these prestige beers are coming to 12 oz bottles or cans, then wax can’t be allowed to come with them. Can you imagine the annoyance of trying to remove waxed tops from 12 oz bottles of imperial stout? Or heaven forbid, a 6-pack of waxed bottles? Please, don’t let it ever come to that. Put those beers in 375 ml bottles, like Firestone Walker’s sours. Or in cans, like Oskar Blues. Or in regular old 12 oz bottles with foil cappers, like Avery, if you feel there MUST be some designation to make them look special. There are options here, and craft beer consumers have become educated enough to tell the difference.
The time of the waxed bottle is over. It’s time to welcome a glorious new dawn of sought-after beer bottles that, wait for it … aren’t particularly difficult to open, and aren’t likely to lead to knife-related thumb injuries. What a time to be alive, folks. I can hardly wait.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer, and he’s almost certainly opened more waxed bottles than you have in the last two months. You can follow him on Twitter.