Greg Rice / Newegg
I have a confession to make: I don’t particularly enjoy homebrewing. I’ve done it under just about a billion conditions, and to me, paying attention to sanitation, temperatures, and the exact minute when to add hops fails to engage my attention in the way that, say, sitting around the yard drinking a nice, cold beer does.
But I do enjoy a feeling of accomplishment, and I like to feel crafty (even if my proudest art project to date involved coasters I made by gluing felt on the back of some Spanish tiles). So I secretly (or, with the publication of this story, not so secretly) hope that the good folks who manufacture the PicoBrew electronic homebrewing machine will consider letting me keep the demo version they sent me to review.
The Seattle start-up’s latest model, called “Pico” ($799 MSRP), is easy, fun, and novel. With this tabletop homebrew-kit-in-a-box I can pretty much insert pre-measured cardboard containers of grains and hops that I’ve ordered online, tune in my internet signal, press a few buttons, and spend the next few hours doing what I wanted to do in the first place: drink beer in the backyard.
Sure -- there are a few additional steps. After cleaning some equipment, and an initial 2-3 hour brew, you must chill the accompanying mini-keg for 24 hours, add a packet of yeast, wait about a week, transfer the liquid to a five-liter serving keg (included), wait another two weeks or so for it to carbonate, and then, of course, clean some more stuff. (Okay, those are more than a few steps.) But hey, in about the same amount of time you would have waited on a “true” homebrew, your beer is ready to drink.
Although my recipe, a clone of Deschutes Brewery’s Fresh Squeezed IPA, didn’t look or taste incredibly like the original, it was, indeed, drinkable. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to carbonate it before a side-by-side taste test with my professional brewer friend Christina Burris -- co-founder of Philadelphia’s Saint Benjamin Brewing -- was less impressed than I.
credits:"Christina Burris by Tara Nurin" width:850 align:center
“It tastes like a mediocre homebrew,” was the highest praise she could muster; “If a guy whipped this out and bragged about it, he’d get no sex from me,” was one of her more candid thoughts. She did also allow that the beer tasted like a “reasonable IPA” and that the aroma was “okay.”
I found fresh fruit in the nose of the Deschutes, but pithier rind in the Pico-branded “Half-Squeezed”. I believe the Half-Squeezed came out more bitter than intended, but it probably wouldn’t have offended a hop zealot. After all, with 72 IBUs (International Bitterness Units), it was certainly designed to elicit at least somewhat of a pucker. I’m not sure why the Pico’s grain bill generated such a light color, but the clarity would have likely matched the Deschutes better if it had had more time to settle. With all of that said, even if the beer didn’t taste exactly like Fresh Squeezed, I can’t buy the real stuff in my home state of New Jersey, anyway.
credits:"Tara Nurin by Christina Burris" width:250 align:right
There are also the economics to consider. Given the $800 price tag on the device, and the roughly $25 required for ingredients to brew one batch, each of the fourteen 12-ounce bottles per batch would cost a buyer $59 on first time use. Yes, that’s indeed pretty pricey for a bottle of beer -- but the PicoBrewed beer ends up costing less if you use it often enough (and don’t factor in labor). I spent $30 on a six-pack of Fresh Squeezed at the overpriced Philadelphia bottle shop closest to Christina’s house, so the PicoBrew becomes a better deal after you’ve used it 18 or more times. Still, it’s undeniably an expensive toy, inaccessible to those who don’t have disposable cash, a reliable Internet connection, and space to store the 24 lb., 16" x 12" x 14" box.
“It’s a first-world machine for privileged urbanites who just want to say they make beer,” commented Nancy Rigberg, long-time owner of Philly’s Home Sweet Homebrew boutique, and a friend who helped me brew the Half Squeezed along with Christina. As a self-described curmudgeon who entered the homebrewing business in 1986, Nancy found herself frustrated that nothing that accompanies the set-it-and-forget-it mechanism explains any connections to real brewing. And Christina thought the manual should have directed users to sanitize rather than “clean” everything to prevent infection.
Personally, I was relieved to use this device. PicoBrew had clearly worked out a lot of the kinks between its original model, the 50 lb. Zymatic ($1,999 MSRP), and the more svelte Pico. The directions read much more clearly, and the timing of each step somewhat approximated what the instructions promised. The Pico internalized and streamlined some of the hardware to minimize mistakes and confusion. And my old Zymatic brewing partner, famed Philly publican Tom Peters, would be happy to know that users no longer have to make their custom recipes public to other Pico brewers.
credits:"Tara Nurin" width:250 align:right
While I can’t claim credit for designing my own beer (though I could have written my own recipe, I simply pre-selected one on PicoBrew’s website and followed instructions), I did squeal with joy watching the Pico’s digital display alert me to each step and inform me that my beer would end up at 6.2% ABV. I could also watch its progress on the website, where a graph registered every minute’s time and temperature. And I feel some sense of pride that I made something I’m drinking as I write this (though, admittedly, when I proudly presented my friend Nick with my tile coasters, he was slightly horrified that I was bragging about properly gluing two pieces of material together).
Fortunately, for those who also like to keep their hands clean, so to speak, while dabbling in the DIY world, PicoBrew has launched a Kickstarter campaign for a third product, called “Pico C.” It’s significantly cheaper ($549 MSRP), contains a built-in Kombucha maker, and is compatible with a forthcoming PicoBrew still (for distilling hop oils and, if you’re licensed, spirits). By the time I experimented with Pico version 2.0 late last month, the Kickstarter campaign for Model C, which continues until May 13, had already broken records for being the crowd-funder’s fifth most successful food campaign ever. The Model C and the still ($349 MSRP) hit market this fall and should soon be found online, at homebrew shops, and at national chains like Best Buy and Sur la Table.
Until then, I reckon I’ll have fun watching Pico’s Kickstarter, which has raised more than $1.5 million on a $350,000 campaign with a week to go, thanks to the more than 3,700 people who’ve pledged so far to receive drastically reduced prices on these products. And I’ll hope that just as the PicoBrew staff gained and applied wisdom between the releases of their first and second versions, I can say the same when it comes time to try out Pico 3.0.
Note: ZX Ventures, which is part of Anheuser-Busch InBev (the owner of this site), is a minority investor in PicoBrew.