Does the Keurig of Homebrew Actually Make Good Beer?
Homebrewers can be a finicky bunch. Hang around a homebrew shop long enough and you’ll hear arguments about beer minutia you probably never knew existed. And many of them take a great deal of pride in mastering that minutia and the challenges that come with it. So it’s not surprising that automated brewing machines like the Picobrew Zymatic, which try to dummy proof the brewing process, brought some eye rolls from the home brewing community (early reaction on some home brew message boards ranged from skeptical curiosity to outright disdain). And when the company rolled out the cheaper, smaller Pico Pro ($799 compared to the Zymatic's $1899) this spring, those eye rolls probably became more intense. The newer model’s PicoPaks do, as most headlines written about the machine suggest, make the machine seem more like a single serve coffeemaker than something that blends the art and science of brewing beer. And as someone who is proud of my DIY wort chiller and the hours I’ve spent stirring pots of grain and hop set on a painfully hot turkey fryer, I counted myself among the skeptically curious when it came to the Pico. But I’m also a sucker for anything with an LCD screen, so I got one to try out to see if the beer it made was good and if I felt empty inside after using it.
The first thing to say about the Pico after opening up the box is that, while it looked cool in pictures, it really does live up to the photos. It has the appearance of something that meals might come out of in a futuristic cartoon. The only downside is that, while it’s fairly compact, a little more than one square foot, it’s not an everyday sort of appliance, so it doesn’t make much sense to keep on the counter to show off. Mine has been living down in the garage. But anyone can make a cool looking box. The real question is how does it work? As far as being an intuitive piece of equipment the Pico Pro gets an average score. While there is only one button to push and the grains and hops from the PicoPaks fit intuitively in the machine’s plastic container, there are still a lot of hoses to connect and water that needs to be added to a variety of places (both in the top of the machine and in the keg). All of this is clearly spelled out in the instruction booklet, which is novella length, but it took me three runs before I could operate without needing to look at the manual for reference.
Once everything was set up though it really did become a “set it and forget it” situation. I went to check on all of my beers’ progress several times throughout the approximately two-hour brew time, just to make sure that nothing overflowed or exploded, but there was never any danger. The Pico’s temperature regulator saw to that. But it is this steadiness that gets at the heart of what almost certainly irks some homebrewers about these machines. There can be an appealing sense of danger amongst people who brew in their apartments or garages and have their brew boil over the top of the pot, leaving a sticky mess. And there is a certain sense of accopmlishment when that doesn’t happen, because it means you did a better job than someone who did screw up. And for those people, the fact that none of this is possible with the Pico is likely part of its original sin. But bemoaning technology simply because it makes life safer and easier has a distinct “get off my lawn” feel to it. We don’t harass people for using Google Maps or sous vide circulators or robot toilet seats, I just don’t see this as all that different.
If you can get over the techie nature of using the Pico, that leaves one other pressing question: Is the beer any good? The short answer is, yes, for a homebrew it is. I brewed three different beers—two of the preset PicoPaks (from Coronado and 21st Ammendment breweries) and one of the company’s “freestyle” paks. The freestyle paks let you customize a recipe, although it’s worth noting that you can only work with the grain and hops available (sorry fans of Southern Hemisphere hops, they don’t have those yet). The beers came out tasting fresh, hoppy and bright. They were fully fermented (according to a hydrometer test), free of sediment and well carbonated. That's all I could have hoped for.
Finally, while the Pico doesn’t appear to lend itself to much customization, it’s not that hard to hack it. You can throw anything you want into the fermenter—hops and yeast that Pico doesn’t sell, fruit, Count Chocula, whatever. The Pico can work for someone looking for the easiest possible way to brew beer, but just because it’s easy doesn’t mean it can’t be creative.
The bottom line: If you’re a homebrewer who believes it’s important to touch every part of your beer at all times, the Pico and other machines like it aren’t for you. But if you just want easy access to kegs of good beer at home, it will get the job done. As to whether or not it will make you feel empty inside, that's an existential question best pondered over a beer. Preferably one you made yourself.