‘Robot, beer me!’

Rise of the automated homebrew machines

PicoBrew’s “Pico C” homebrew machine.

PicoBrew’s “Pico C” homebrew machine.

Image courtesy of PicoBrew

Making beer used to require a bucket, some grain, hops and yeast. The newest homebrewing setups include software, and it’s almost impossible to run them without a smartphone.

Welcome to the future, where beerbots, or automated brewing machines, could be poised to revolutionize homebrewing. These countertop appliances turn raw ingredients into beer with relatively little required of the human homebrewer. Unsurprisingly, the companies that make them seem to be marketing them toward moneyed millennials who like techy gadgets that do stuff for you and, possibly, have only marginal interest in learning how to actually make beer.

Indeed, some beerbot models, like the forthcoming units from MiniBrew and iGulu, are almost entirely automated. The human homebrewer must only momentarily set down his or her smartphone to add the ingredients and press a button. In some cases, brewing is started with a tap of the phone screen. Two weeks later, the homebrewer has beer.

“In one sense, it takes all the fun out of brewing,” says Jeremy Marshall, Lagunitas Brewing Co.’s brewmaster. “It’s kind of like a TV dinner that you just put in the microwave.”

That said, Marshall uses a beerbot—specifically the PicoBrew Zymatic system—in the Petaluma brewery’s fermentation lab. Marshall says he and his staff have used the appliance to test specialty varieties of grain. The same tests could be run in a traditional homebrewing bucket, too.

“But this way we can just add the ingredients and start it running, and go off and take care of the other work we already have to do,” he said.

On the day that the Lagunitas team first used their Zymatic system, the brewery’s Wi-Fi was working sporadically.

“We literally couldn’t make beer because we couldn’t get online,” Marshall said. (According to a source at PicoBrew, the units will continue brewing if the Internet fails midway through the process. To get most beerbots started, though, takes Wi-Fi.)

PicoBrew, the lead pioneer in the beerbot business, is based in Seattle and makes three automated brewing systems. The Zymatic is the largest and most expensive, running about $2,000. The others, the Pico Pro and the new Pico C, are less than half the price. The machines streamline the brewing process—just some transferring of liquids from one container to another and adding presorted ingredients—while allowing homebrewers to replicate (or at least try to) any of dozens of popular commercial beers, whose breweries (places like 21st Amendment Brewery and Coronado Brewing Co.) have licensed the recipes to PicoBrew in exchange for royalties. It’s a very neat concept. For beer lovers in parts of the world where craft beer is difficult to come by (like much of southern Europe and Latin America), PicoBrew changes everything.

“It means the brewery doesn’t need a distributor to reach consumers,” said Bill Mitchell, a co-founder of PicoBrew. In theory, he added, PicoBrew clone beers can taste even better than the commercial beers they’re meant to mimic, since the replicated beer will be much fresher than what is available in stores. According to online user reviews, the PicoBrew systems do a pretty good job, though not always, of cloning commercial beers.

Locally, Dawn McDonald, co-owner of Chico’s Home Brew Shop, says there hasn’t been enough demand for automated machines for her to start carrying them. “I kind of wait for my customers to signal me,” she said.

It isn’t surprising that there is some controversy in homebrewing circles about these machines.

Emma Christensen, a San Jose food writer and homebrewer, says she doesn’t see much difference between using a beerbot and buying a six-pack at the store.

“For me, the fun part of brewing is the process, everything from deciding what beer I’m going to make to getting the ingredients to going into the kitchen and starting the boil,” Christensen said.

If beerbots do have a household future, she said, it will probably be as a luxury toy for tech-savvy people “who want to tell their friends they’ve made beer with some shiny, polished machine.”