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The case against wax seals

What's the scientific point, anyway?
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Photo by Jess Suworoff

Jess Suworoff for DRAFT

It’s stout season, and that means I’m delighting over beautiful pours of velvety imperials with dark, inviting heads. It also means I’m struggling like a grandma opening a pickle jar when I try to cut through wax seals. After a few weeks of hacking away at what feels like inches of hard wax in every color imaginable, I’ve grown frustrated. Sure, the wax looks fancy. But is there a scientific reason for the coating to stand between me and my beer? Some claim that a layer of wax helps keep air out of the bottle, reducing the chance of oxidation. Is this necessary on a bottle that’s already cap-sealed, though? Let’s nerd out.

My first call was to Dr. Andrew L. Waterhouse, a researcher and professor of enology at U.C. Davis who studies the effects of oxidation on wine. He told me he couldn’t speak to beer specifically, and that a cursory search of the literature on oxygen permeability of wax didn’t yield much useful information. He told me his instincts said that if a bottle was capped with a crown, the wax shouldn’t matter much, but that it wasn’t his area of expertise. So I hit the scientific journals.

There are plenty of studies out there about wine and oxidation, and a ton of beer message board threads dedicated to the wax debate. Between those two, though, there’s a gulf. It seems no one’s written, scientifically, about whether wax seals prevent oxygen from sneaking through caps and corks to ruin beer.

This is where the wine research made me pause. Plenty of wineries, and breweries, look favorably on micro-oxidation of their liquids. Micro-oxidation—when a miniscule amount of air seeps into a beer or wine through the cap or cork—rounds out flavors and softens alcohol. It’s why we age beer and wine, after all. If nothing changed about it in the bottle, we could drink those barrel-aged stouts and Burgundies right after they come off the bottling line. A completely closed environment isn’t exactly what we’re after.

At the end of my deep library dive, I came away firmly in the anti-wax camp. If we don’t need a 100-percent sealed environment, and if the wax can’t be proven to do much to preserve beer’s flavor, then what’s the point, beyond aesthetics? I appreciate a beautiful bottle as much as the next drinker, but it’s hard to give the package style points when I’m bandaging the finger I sliced on my wax-opening pen knife.

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Author
Kate Bernot is DRAFT’s beer editor. Reach her at kate.bernot[at]draftmag.com.

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22 Comments

  • Axel says:

    It’s so they can charge more for the bottle. You ever seen a 22oz wax sealed beer for under $8

  • Marcio Beck says:

    The lack of scientific research on a lot of technical aspects of beer appreciation and storage is disturbing.

  • Stewie says:

    The author need to invest in a YOpener. Has a built in wax cutter on the handle.

  • Jared says:

    This assumes that oxidation is the only thing that is changing the flavor of the beer over time. There are many factors that contribute to changing flavors, especially yeast (particularly in bottle-fermented beers). I’m all for more study on the topic though!

    Also, dressing a bottle up with wax or foil almost ensures that people will have to pour it into a glass vs. drinking straight from the bottle. Clever trick by brewers to get your beer drank the way you want it drank.

    • I agree, Jared. Micro-oxidation may be good for some wines, but I don’t believe it’s good for beer. There are, as you said, other factors involved. I also agree about not drinking from the bottle. I never drink any beer directly from the bottle if I can help it. Cheers!

      • Josh M says:

        Well you would be wrong.

        1. Oxidization doesn’t always require oxygen, just a reducing agent.

        2. All beer oxidizes in the bottle, regardless of cap style (since oxidizing agents are present in solution at bottling).

        3. Wild ales (Belgian ones, particularly) have benefited from micro-oxidation and oxygen permeability of corks for almost 50 years. At least according to the brewers and those who are interested in drinking vintage wild ales.

        Oxidation doesn’t help IPAs, but it often does wonders to beers that are unbalanced fresh.

        • Steven P says:

          Well youd be wrong as well, as corks are not oxygen permeable. otherwise no champagne or sparkling wine would ever retain its carbonation over time. Also 99%of corks used on todays market are artificial corks and as such are also non permeable. the oxygen in the bottle and the gases produced by the bits of yeast etc still in the mixture provide the oxidation in bottles.

  • Charles says:

    Correct me if I”m wrong, Internet, but aren’t most wax-sealed beers already aged for some period before bottling? Perhaps this is the brewery’s way of trying to arrest any further oxidization beyond what they have already allowed to happen?

  • Todd Ashman says:

    Check out http://www.blendedwaxes.com and then look for ‘bottle sealing wax. Some folks like to do verticals and want several years worth. The bottle sealing wax is made to create a positive seal that ensures the cap seal remains intact. The various colors offer a method of ID’ing the product.

    You can’t use any old wax though that is just counter productive…

  • JK says:

    Stops the cap rusting.

  • Dale says:

    I agree 100% Although you have to admit, the wax looks fancy. Spending 10 minutes to peel it off on the other hand, isn’t as fun as it should be.

    Either way it is a nice marketing technique. It makes the beer look more appealing to the newer craft beer audience. I admit the real reason I purchased, and was willing to pay $15.00 for a bottle of “kill ’em all” this past holiday season was the wax seal.

  • Nicole Erny says:

    If the beer is meant to be cellared, I wonder if the layer of way prevents TCA/corked off flavor, as the responsible vectors can enter the bottle easily if stored in a contaminated cellar. I think it is a look cool/specialness factor (e.g. perceived value) above all.

  • Adam says:

    Would you mind sharing any of the information you found and sources you used in your “deep library dive”. This topic is intriguing but you leave the reader with nothing much to go on.

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  • […] is no scientific evidence that wax actually does keep oxygen out of the […]

  • Dr. John says:

    I see rust under the caps all too often, if they are dried quickly and then waxed it might help.
    There is always some O2 introduced during bottling and some natural aging (that might be precursors formed by oxygen exposure in an earlier stage. But caps generally do atmosphere exchange to a certain extent so adding a layer of was if done right might slow that down.

    We just need somebody with a Hach Orbisphere 6110 to run some time series testing

  • We manufacture a Twist Off bottle and dip sealing waxes. If using a twist off cap no need to cut wax at all, just grab the top and twist. Also can be used on non twist off crown caps by just plunging the opener into the wax under the crown and open! We have almost any color wax and have recently been featured on the Lady Behemoth and Dark Lord Bottles from Three Floyds Brewery with a black wax with silver glitter flecks.

  • Casey says:

    If people think wax will help prevent oxidation of aging their beers for long periods of time, let them. There’s also not enough evidence for anyone to be telling them it’s a waste of time.
    I personally wax my bigger beers for better looking appearance in the cellaring process (I feel like I’ve made that much fancier of a beer) and figure if it helps prevent oxidation on an Imperial Barrel Aged Rye Stout or Peated Barleywine I’ll be tasting for years as they age, it’s just an added benefit.
    I like the thought of additional security of forcing people to be more likely to drink from the glass than bottle when gifted one of my treasures as well.

    Fancier brewing projects aside, if you drink your bottled seasonal and regular brews as fast as I do then you aren’t wasting time worrying about oxidation or wax presentation either. I usually don’t even waste time on labels for those beers and just color code the caps in case I find one stowed away a few months later.

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