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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

December 15, 2014 at 12:46 PM

Review: PicoBrew Zymatic, the beer brewing robot

It’s hard to stop thinking about beer when you’re living with a beer robot.

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Knowing that the robot is standing by, ready to brew a batch on demand, you start to see ingredients everywhere you turn. What elixir could it produce if you fed it gingerbread, rose hips or perhaps a handful of pine needles?

In reality, the robot spends a lot of time idle because there’s only so much beer you can produce and consume in a single-family home.

But it’s still thrilling to have it brew on your behalf, without having to spend a day hovering around a stove trying to precisely mix, boil and soak ingredients.

That’s been my experience the past few weeks living with a PicoBrew Zymatic, the cloud-connected, robotic beer-making machine developed in Seattle by veterans of Microsoft and the food industry.

Their goal was to use technology to simplify brewing, remove the drudgery and make advanced beer making more accessible to the masses, similar to what espresso machines have done for coffee at home.

The Zymatic next to a four-slice toaster.

The Zymatic next to a four-slice toaster.

PicoBrew tinkered for years before surfacing in 2013 with the Zymatic, an automated, cloud-connected, all-grain brewing system that’s about the size of a circa 1980 microwave oven.

The machine sells for $1,699, or $1,799 if bundled with one of the 5 gallon kegs you’ll need to make it work.

That may seem expensive, but it’s in the range of other automated brewing systems and serious brewing setups. It could also pay for itself eventually, if you’re a regular drinker of pricey craft brews.

It’s also been a surprise hit, with sales double what was expected, according to PicoBrew Chief Executive Bill Mitchell, previously a Microsoft vice president.

Mitchell started the company with his brother, Jim, a food scientist who built commercial food-processing systems, and former Microsoft hardware architect Avi Geiger. A dozen people now work at its offices near Fremont.

It took awhile to get production rolling but after switching to a new manufacturing partner production is up to 200 machines a month. PicoBrew expects to fulfill all of its 400 crowdsourced orders by Christmas.

The Zymatic is intriguing — and not just because it’s fun and produces tasty beer.

These machines, along with a few other robo-brewing systems that are coming to market, add sparkle to the “Internet of Things” business that had been a tech industry obsession in recent years.

 

The term refers to the proliferation of sensors, software and connectivity that’s expected to provide new ways to connect, monitor and control all sorts of things. But until recently, the jazziest Internet of Things gadget for consumers has been a programmable thermostat.

I think the Zymatic is more closely related to the computer-controlled soda dispensers that Taco Time and a few other restaurants use nowadays. They let people mix all sorts of flavors using a touch-screen interface. Inside, the machines sort and blend ingredients and provide an online status report to owners.

The Zymatic, a keg and box of ingredients just fit in a Car2Go pico car.

The Zymatic, a keg and box of ingredients just fit in a Car2Go pico car.

The Zymatic also joins a parade of unusual but compelling consumer devices created in a region still known more for software and airplanes. Others include the Sonicare toothbrush, the HeartStart home defibrillator and the Clover coffee machine used at some Starbucks.

 

Home-brewing is a niche but it’s a big one. More than 1 million Americans brew at home and microbreweries are almost the new coffee shop. More than 1.5 are opening every day in the U.S., according to the Brewers Association trade group. I think they’re opening at twice that rate in Ballard.

The Zymatic produces 2.5 gallons per batch and is aimed at brewing enthusiasts and pros looking for a machine to experiment with test runs. I could see restaurants using one to brew beers designed around seasonal meals.

One early user is J Wynia, a Minneapolis software developer and avid brewer. He bought a Zymatic partly because he could tap into its Web interface and use the system to demonstrate how his company’s workflow and work automation software can be used in factories.

Wynia said the price is reasonable compared with automated brewing systems that have been around for a while and range from $2,500 to $6,000.

“For me, it’s a machine that adds to my existing setup rather than replacing it,” he said via email. “I’m using it to rapidly experiment with recipes and produce small batches to see if I like what I’ve come up with. For recipes that I’ve perfected to be exactly what I want, I’ll brew them on the bigger rig.”

After brewing several batches at home, I found that it does indeed remove monotony and uncertainty from the brewing process. Mostly it frees you from the stove.

Monitoring the brew progress on an iPhone.

Monitoring the brew progress on an iPhone.

The Zymatic connects to the Internet via Wi-Fi or Ethernet cable, and recipes are managed through a website where owners can download and share recipes and see what’s brewing in Zymatics around the world.

Last week, I moved the system to a new location in my house, wired it up and loaded it with ingredients for a batch of ale in about a half an hour, while simultaneously making breakfast and packing my daughter up for school.

At work I monitored the brewing activity on my PC and phone. At lunch I returned to a fragrant home and finished the brewing process in about an hour. The ale should be ready to drink in a week or so.

For someone who has used kits to brew — basically boiling up cans and bags of prepared ingredients — it’s an easy way to step up to brewing with raw grains.

But it’s not quite a “Keurig for brewing” and is probably best for people with some brewing experience and equipment on hand. It’s more like a professional machine than a kitchen appliance, though if you’re handy enough to change the oil in a car or use a manual espresso machine, you’ll probably have no trouble with a Zymatic. My second-grader loaded the ingredients.

To brew, you select or enter a recipe on the Web console. Then you fill the machine with grains, hops and any extra flavoring additions. A keg is filled with about three gallons of water then connected with included hoses.

Over about four hours it cycles the water through the machine, brings it to boil, soaks and swishes it through the ingredients. You’re left with a keg of wort.

Then it gets a little trickier. You have to cool the keg as quickly as possible, which I did by putting it into a bucket filled with ice and water. The Zymatic helps by circulating the wort until the temperature is just right.

Then you add yeast, put on the special lid and let it ferment.

PicoBrew's custom seal seal for 5-gallon "Corny" kegs.

PicoBrew’s custom seal seal for 5-gallon “Corny” kegs.

The first batch I brewed (Just Squeezed IPA from a PicoBrew ingredient kit) spewed foam all over the kitchen during the cooling process but I think it was user error. I may not have tightened the keg hoses enough during the setup. The batch turned out well enough that I may be forgiven for the mess.

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Next time around, vanquished to the basement and with tightened hoses, the Zymatic performed perfectly without any foam release.

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Once the fermentation is done, the simplest way forward is to connect the finished keg to a carbon-dioxide dispensing system, but casual brewers and beer-drinkers probably don’t have such setups on hand.

Others can siphon the beer out of the keg and into bottles. Then you have to clean out the keg.

These tasks are a reminder that although the Zymatic may be transformative for beer lovers, we have a ways to go before beer robots can do everything.

The beer cloud: On PicoBrew's site, owners can see what others are brewing with their Zymatics.

The beer cloud: On PicoBrew’s site, owners can see what others are brewing with their Zymatics.

 

Comments | More in Reviews | Topics: food, gadgets and products, Internet of Things

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