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September 30, 2013 at 11:06 AM

Seattle startup with Microsoft ties invents automatic brewing machine

If you were one of the top guys who spent much of the 2000s trying to get Microsoft to develop tablet computers, you might be ready for a drink.

Or two.

Fortunately, that guy — Bill Mitchell — has figured out how to easily produce a never-ending supply of absolutely top-notch beer, in any style and flavor you can imagine.

Bill Mitchell, left and Avi Geiger, formerly of Microsoft, with their PicoBrew home beer-brewing machine. Photo by Greg Gilbert, Times staff photographer.

Bill Mitchell, left and Avi Geiger, formerly of Microsoft, with their PicoBrew home beer-brewing machine. Photo by Greg Gilbert, Times staff photographer.

After leaving Microsoft in 2010, Mitchell started a company called PicoBrew with his food-scientist brother and a gifted hardware hacker he used to work with in Redmond.

Together they created a dream machine for small-scale brewing that they’re unveiling today.

Called the PicoBrew Zymatic, it’s a device the size of a large microwave oven that almost completely automates the process of producing beer.

The idea was to take the drudgery out of brewing, without sacrificing the fun or the gratification that comes from creating your own batches, Mitchell said.

“The beauty for us, especially in beer-making, is it’s this great fusion of science and cooking, of chemistry and cooking,” he said. “We didn’t want to lose any of that — in fact we want to enhance that portion of it — and just take out the bad portions.”

They’ve also applied modern technologies to the ancient art.

Zymatic machines were designed to be Internet appliances. They are controlled by open-source software, connected to the Web and managed through a browser.

PicoBrew’s software dashboard is used to concoct recipes and adjust brewing cycles. Users can share recipes through the service and monitor the brewing process remotely on their smartphone.

Data collected by this online service — from users who opt to share their brewing activity — will be used to continue refining the machines, which are also designed to be hacked and modified as buyers see fit.

About 1 million people in the U.S. brew their own beer, from President Obama on down, according to the American Homebrewers Association. But it remains a niche hobby because home-brewing can be a hassle.

To make a batch, you may spend most of a day cleaning and sterilizing vessels and implements, then heating, mixing and cooling the ingredients.

It’s also tricky to precisely repeat the process, which is what finally convinced Mitchell there had to be a better way.

While still an executive leading various Microsoft hardware projects, Mitchell, 50, began brewing more and more advanced beers at his Medina home, including Belgian ales, stouts and barley wines.

A turning point came after he produced a particularly great stout for a soccer-team party. Others raved and asked for more, but he was unable to get his special recipe to work again.

Mitchell didn’t have to look far for help. His brother, Jim, is a physicist and home-brewer who designs food-processing facilities. Their late grandfather was a noted General Foods scientist whose inventions led to products such as Cool Whip, Tang, Jell-O and Pop Rocks candy.

“We said, ‘We should be able to come up with something that automates that process, like a superautomatic espresso maker,’ ” Mitchell said. Goals included a system with precise temperature control that could produce repeat batches and that could be cleaned in a dishwasher.

At first they tinkered with things like robotic arms and complicated valve systems. Eventually they gave up trying to mechanically add and remove ingredients. Instead they figured out a way to circulate water at different temperatures through the dry ingredients.

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To make a batch with a Zymatic, you select a recipe in the browser. Then you measure and pour grain into a plastic tray and the hops into specially designed filter baskets. You then slide them into the machine. A small “Cornelius” keg is filled with water and attached to the machine, which circulates the water back and forth.

About 3 ½ hours later the batch is done. You add yeast to the keg, refrigerate it for a week or so and the beer is ready.

The machines are developed and assembled by a team of eight working in a funky building near Gas Works Park where ZymoGenetics started out. It includes a production shop filled with tools, including surplus Boeing equipment.

The heart of the building is a former lab area where the machines are tested, churning out batch after batch of beer. Refrigerators around the room are stuffed with kegs, and Mitchell encourages visitors to bring home samples. So far they’ve brewed more than 300 batches while tuning and testing the system to be sure it can produce all sorts of beers with premium results.

PicoBrew’s third co-founder is former Microsoft hardware designer Avi Geiger, who worked with Mitchell at the dawn of the smartphone era when Microsoft was pioneering the category in the late 1990s.

Later they worked on the ultra-mobile PC efforts in the mid 2000s that presaged the rise of tablet computing. They also worked with Xbox co-founder Otto Berkes to secretly build a prototype Windows tablet before the iPad appeared, but they couldn’t persuade Microsoft’s senior leaders to release the product.

Before that, Mitchell managed Microsoft’s early forays into smart watches and in-car computers.

It remains to be seen whether he’s at the leading edge of another breakout consumer phenomenon with brewing gear.

But the rise of home espresso machines suggests there is a significant market for equipment that simplifies in-home beverage production for enthusiasts.

For now, though, they’re trying to reach hard-core home-brewers and pros who can use the equipment to experiment and produce small test batches.

Several breweries have been testing the system, including Fremont Brewing. It used a Zymatic to test and tweak the winter beer it’s releasing in November, a dark wheat ale with smoked and caramel malt flavors and a little spice.

“We were quite honestly very skeptical at first — it’s kind of tilting at windmills to do this — but they pulled it off,” said founder Matt Lincecum.

He’s particularly impressed by the compact size and precision.

“We found that the beer it makes also fits all the specifications that you program in, which is a pretty hard thing to do. That’s an impressive achievement,” he said.

In addition to using the machine for test batches, Lincecum wants to place it in the company’s beer garden/tasting room to encourage customer participation.

“Customers select or participate and select aroma variety or grains or whatever, then you put a beer together, brew it and put it on tap,” he said. “It’s a really neat concept. It brings the idea of brewing to a larger audience.”

PicoBrew will gauge demand and help fund production by selling its initial runs of Zymatic machines on the Kickstarter project-funding site. Early machines listed for $1,300 sold out almost immediately. Later models, arriving in February and beyond, will cost about $1,500.

Mitchell isn’t saying much about future directions, but there are several options to broaden the appeal and reach of the company’s products.

For instance, Jim Mitchell uses them for sous-vide cooking, a vacuum-cooking technique in which ingredients are placed in a sealed bag and cooked in water held at a precise temperature.

Especially tasty was a sous-vide tri-tip steak marinated in a mega stout, cooked in a brewing machine and shared in the PicoBrew conference room — proving that you actually can have your beer and eat it, too.

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Comments | Topics: beer, Entrepreneurs, food

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