In 2013, a friend gave John Miller a hand-carved piece of wood with a bolt on the end to use as a bottle opener. An avid beer drinker and trader, Miller had dabbled in woodworking in the past.
“I thought they were cool, but I knew I could make them better,” he says. “I made a few for some friends for Christmas that year. Then a couple of the local beer geek buddies were like, ‘Hey, you should make a few more of those and sell them,’ and it took off from there.”
In 2014, Miller started his company, YOpeners, which he owns with his son, Josh. The idea was to connect in the shop after Miller, who works as a teacher, got home from school. Josh is autistic and blind, and Miller wanted his son to be a part of the business.
Rather than screwing bolts into the wood, Miller uses an arbor press, which Josh can operate. Since YOpeners’ launch, the duo has made upwards of 15,000 openers, which can range from $20 to $50 depending on the wood. Miller regularly crafts the openers from used bourbon barrels, often after they’ve taken several turns in a brewery to age beer.
In the first three years of operating, YOpeners donated $11,000 to the Autism Center in Tulsa, and has since allotted portions of its proceeds to other charitable organizations. Miller also likes to annually purchase one “fun tool” that can be added to the collection and that Josh can use in the shop.
At its simplest, a bottle opener is just a device to pry the cap off your beer; in practice, it’s so much more. Beer bottle openers are personal tools and often come with a story. As the U.S. craft beer industry has evolved, so has this niche industry creating artisanal bottle openers.
Adam Hicks, a technology company salesman from Texas, helms another craft operation devoted to bottle openers. Hicks had been using his three-car garage as a woodshop for several years, building furniture, cabinets and other items in his spare time.
In 2015, his brother came over and shared a bottle of Goose Island Bourbon County Stout that had been packaged in a wooden box. When the beer was gone, Hicks was inspired to create an opener from the packaging, rather than toss it away. That became the first Hicks Opener and the start of his part-time business.
Today, Hicks says he has hand-made nearly 3,000 openers in a variety of woods and resin. Some have pop cultural or holiday themes, and others are made to order.
Hicks’ openers range from $80 to $500 or more. A Facebook group that Hicks moderates serves as both a celebration of the openers and waiting list for those who want one of their own.
“I’m making these to be used for years and years and each one is personal, and over time with each bottle the opener tells a story,” says Hicks. “Because it’s there at a certain time and place, it makes it special.”
Hicks has also, from time to time, run contests that offer an all-expense paid trip to his workshop where the winner not only gets to enjoy some beer from his collection but also participates in the design and build of a custom opener.
Recently, Hicks has started working with an outside company to 3D-print openers on a larger scale, and says that the custom openers, which he still makes at his home, remain a hobby and passion project.
In New York, Blue Ox Wood Shop has also made a name for itself by creating carved wood openers from staves. Works include small custom jobs, including one wooden handle carved out to hold a 1-ounce flask. The company has recently been experimenting with laser-cut stainless-steel openers that can fit into a wallet’s credit card slot and have an opener, wax cutting teeth and a can puncture.
Sometimes, these bottle opener craftsmen will get requests for other products.
“Occasionally, we’ll make some cigar ashtrays out of barrel heads,” says Miller. “We’ve made some coasters out of bourbon barrels. But now we’re just happy in our little niche, and we’ll stay here.”