If you’re a craft beer drinker, there are few places that compare to Seattle when it comes to its concentration of great, small breweries. But a brew operation small enough to fit on a kitchen countertop could bring that great craft taste to more people across the country and around the world.
I’ve been testing a Pico, the newest machine from Seattle-based PicoBrew. The makers of the Zymatic home brewing machine and KegSmarts fermentation and serving system have developed a new $799 appliance that makes home brewing practically as simple as turning on the coffee maker. Yes, when it comes to technology product reviews, this has to be one of the greatest assignments ever.
With ready-to-brew ingredients, easy to follow instructions and state-of-the-art hardware and software, Pico is cool to look at and painless to operate.
As a beer lover who had never bothered to try brewing at home, I wanted to discover whether the operation was quick enough to hold my interest and whether it made beer that was tasty enough to want to do it again.
“It’s really easy to screw up and it’s really sucky to get a bad batch after you’ve been waiting for a couple weeks,” PicoBrew co-founder and CEO Bill Mitchell said of the traditional garage-style home brewing process that many beer geeks dive into.
A former Microsoft vice president, Mitchell had been a home brewer for about 10 years when the opportunity arose to bring hardware and software into a space that he was passionate about. Along with his brother, Jim Mitchell, a food scientist with years of experience in the field of food processing technology, and Avi Geiger, a hardware engineer and architect who also put in years at Microsoft, Mitchell started PicoBrew in 2010.
The goal was to bring a greater level of process control, which they were all passionate about, to the home brew masses.
“We can do for the industry what super automatic espresso makers did for making really good coffee drinks at home,” Mitchell theorizes about Pico. “And we can bring the joy and the pleasure and the quality of home brewing to everyone.”
He says there was nothing in the space that could do that the way, say, Nespresso aims to make home coffee brewers get more quality in every cup.
“You can go to your local home brew shop and get the traditional Father’s Day gift of a bunch of plastic pails and maybe a Coopers kit,” Mitchell said. “And you open up what looks like a can of pineapple juice and underneath you’ve got a gnarly, pretty old packet of yeast and you make beer, it’s alcohol, but it’s not like, ‘Oh, good, now I’ll never got to any of those brew pubs anymore because I can make beer.’ Not at all.”
PicoBrew’s grand dream was about the quality and the selection you can get. The BrewMarketplace on its website features craft beers from breweries around the world — packaged into “PicoPaks,” which contain the necessary, pre-measured mix of hops and grains.
PicoBrew is currently shipping and fulfilling a couple thousand existing Kickstarter and other pre-orders, and the company expects to have “general availability” by the end of October.
The BrewMarketplace’s average PikoPak price is between $18.99 and $29.99, and each package makes 5 liters — the equivalent of 13 12-ounce bottles, as a comparison. PicoBrew has signed license agreements with more than 125 breweries at this time and has more than 200 craft beer recipes pending development and approval. Right now there are about 35 PicoPak recipes approved and available for purchase and PicoBrew says it’s adding more every week.
“It’s so much better than what you can get in a can or a bottle,” Mitchell said. “The only way you can get something that fresh is to go to a brew pub.”
And Mitchell says that while we’re obviously lucky in the Seattle area, or Portland or Vermont, that’s not the case in most of the U.S. and certainly not the case in most of the world.
“Although craft brew pubs are popping up all over the place and it is a thing, you still find plenty of places where you can’t walk down the street like you can [in Seattle] and trip on a dozen really great craft breweries,” Mitchell said. “And even if you can, part of what you’re in it for is the experience.”
Time to make beer
My experience started with unpacking the various components of the Pico and getting everything set up neatly on my kitchen table. Once all of the packaging is set aside, there’s not a lot of space being taken up by the machine.
The 100-page instruction manual is detailed and, probably because it was put together by engineers, is full of precise and professional diagrams. There were very few steps that caused me to pause and wonder exactly what I was supposed to do next.
After some reading and a machine rinsing process and some set up, it was no time before I was inserting a PicoPak of Mosaic IPA from Lucky Envelope. The small, year-and-a-half-old brewery isn’t far from my house in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood.
I pressed the start button and the Pico kicked in. The noise was louder than your average coffee maker or dish washer, maybe, but less than that of a blender.
For 20 years, one of my favorite things about living in Seattle has been the smell of beer being made at breweries in my neighborhood, or at the old Redhook Brewery in Fremont. Now I had that hoppy smell in my kitchen on a Sunday afternoon.
About 2 1/2 hours later, after the Pico’s digital display signaled what was happening throughout, the brew process was complete. I set the brewing keg aside to cool for 24 hours and then spent about 15 minutes running the Pico’s cleaning cycle.
The next day, I stirred the wort, added the yeast from a supplied packet and added a sanitized airlock to the keg before setting it in my basement for standard fermentation.
Several days later, I sanitized a 5-liter serving keg and transferred the fermented beer from my brew keg via a short process using the Pico’s pumping system. A carbonation regulator with a cartridge in it was slipped into the top of the serving keg and I popped it all into the fridge for 36 hours.
Tasting the real thing first
On a Sunday after a Seahawks win, I was in the mood for beer. But I wanted a base measurement from which to compare my home-brewed Lucky Envelope IPA. So I headed over to the actual brew pub for the first time.
I spent $5 on a glass of beer and watched people pick up from a brewery baby shower which I had just missed. Barry Chan, co-owner and head brewer, happened to be on site and we had a chat about PicoBrew, the IPA he made that I was drinking, and the IPA I made at home that I would try later.
Chan happens to be friends with Annie Johnson, master brewer at PicoBrew and a member of Chan’s home brew club — remember that part about Seattle being a concentrated mecca for craft beer lovers?
“I like what those guys are doing, it’s not hard to support them,” Chan said about Lucky Envelope’s relationship with PicoBrew.
Chan said Pico is aimed at sourcing a lot of different breweries, who make kits for people who might not be able to get those beers in their immediate area.
“And then for the breweries it’s great exposure because we’re hyperlocal, we’re very Seattle focused,” Chan said. “And to get out to other parts of the country at this point is impossible.”
Holding his brew pub beer in front of him, I asked Chan how close he thought I could get at home, using Pico and the Lucky Envelope PicoPak.
“I think you can get very close,” he said, adding that the PikoPak recipe carries the essence of his beer. “The beers that I’ve had that have come from the Pico have been pretty top notch.”
The description on the beer menu at the brew pub, by the way, said Mosaic has a “restrained malt profile and notes of juicy tropical fruit and resinous pine.”
Chan also gave me some tips as to what to look for in case anything had gone wrong and I managed to spoil my brew. He said whatever I did wouldn’t kill me.
Home brew tasting
I was back at home with a pint of good beer in my belly, contemplating what was coming. With only a few real hours of work invested — if you don’t count the waiting time for fermentation and carbonation — I wasn’t overly worried about time lost to a useless exercise.
But I did want to know, for the sake of bragging to friends, that I could make a killer IPA in my kitchen — with the help of an $800 appliance.
“We had to reinvent the 2,000-year-old brewing process,” Mitchell had said to me. “It’s been done the same way for thousands of years. We wanted to get to the point where you could do it in your kitchen like any gourmet food prep — that’s the way we think of beer.”
I opened the serving keg of my home-brew and watched it pour into a glass (from yet another Northwest brewery). The color looked nice and it didn’t carry any funky odor.
I raised the glass, smelled it closer … and took my fist sip.
The beer tasted good. It was flavorful and hoppy and had what I would characterize as a fruitier finish than the IPA I drank at the actual neighborhood brewery an hour earlier.
But I was concerned that it lacked sufficient carbonation. Of all the processes, it was during carbonation that I wondered if perhaps I had done something wrong, like not cranked the PSI on the regulator high enough. The lack of zip in this first glass seemed to confirm that suspicion.
I loaded the serving keg up and did what any sensible home brewer would do, and took it to a friend’s house for his 4-year-old daughter’s birthday party.
In my friend’s kitchen, we filled a few glasses with my PicoBrew offering and started drinking, as I warned folks that I thought it might be a little flat.
My friend is an accomplished home brewer, who, thanks to that 4-year-old eating cake in the other room, just hasn’t had the time to make beer these days.
But two or three glasses in, he looked at me and said, “This is good! … And that’s not just the beer talking.”