Do robots dream of electric beer?


robot-beerHomebrewing is always evolving. In the old days, brewers had to make do with what information, ingredients, and materials they could get their hands on. Today there is a wealth of information online and in print and numerous retailers supplying high quality ingredients. This availability has helped bring in new brewers and broadened the homebrewer profile. Combine that with the maker movement, the “App-ification” of life, and crowdfunding and you have the recipe for some pretty interesting developments. Ones that will in turn have an impact on homebrew culture. Move your blue coolers and converted kegs out of the way, the robots are coming!

Our robot overlords

When the Picobrew Zymatic first popped up on Kickstarter in 2013, it sparked heated debate in the homebrew world. Can it work? Is it cheating? Who’s the brewer? Where’s the fun? The gadget guy inside me loved it, but the brewer in me was extremely skeptical. That same skepticism lead Annie Johnson (AHA Homebrewer of the Year 2013) to contact Picobrew when she heard what they wanted to do. Now, Annie is the Picobrew Brewmaster and sings the praise of this wonder machine.* I too started to believe it could work after seeing several other respected homebrewers testing the units with great results. Ok, maybe it works, but the big problem is that it seems to take away too much of the fun. I like brewing. No thanks!

After my stroke, I see it a bit differently. The two parts of brewing that I get the most enjoyment out of are recipe formulation and playing with fermentation. Don’t get me wrong, the actual wort creation is fun, but its hard to fit it into my life. The Zymatic seems to give you lots of control over all aspects of the mashing process, but you set it all up in advance during your recipe formulation. Thats good since I currently have trouble with concentration. With its 2.5 gallon batch size and a shortened, semi-automated process, the Picobrew would allow me to brew more often. I could put the kids to bed and still knock out a brew that night. Then when the family runs off to the beach for a day, I could get out the old setup and brew up a larger batch. What really sold me on the idea that a product like this does have a place in home brewing is what I read from numerous users of the device, “The Picobrew allows me to get back into brewing.” That’s big! However, so is the $2000 price tag. Maybe if I start saving now I’ll be able to look into it in a couple years. By then there may be even better options on the scene. Since the Zymatic came out there have been a few similar products passing through the crowdfunding scene like Brewie and BrewBot. Both have advantages and disadvantages on paper, but neither one is actually shipping products yet. It will be interesting to see what happens in this product category.


These may be the droids you are looking for

There is also another type of device that keeps popping up. I’ll call it the new-age Mr. Beer. These products take away almost all control of the brewing processes and seem to be geared towards new or non-brewers. These range from the overly complex and ridiculously high-priced Williams Warn extract brewery (don’t be fooled by their slogan) to the newly announced Picobrew Pico (yes, the same boffins behind the Zymatic) and MiniBrew. While these are certainly interesting products, they have a very different intended use as the Zymatic, Brewie, or Brewbot. I am definitely still in the skeptical phase with these products. I have my doubts about the MiniBrew working, but I do believe the Pico will work based on the success of the Zymatic. What I would argue is that these products are too expensive for the intended audience. If any of them will be successful they will have to have a unique selling point that clearly adds value beyond it’s price. Picobrew is trying to do this by setting up partnerships with established Breweries. They see the Pico more as a beer distributor rather than a home brewery. Purchase a Pico pack, pop it in, and push go. No one off creations you make yourself, just prepackaged recipes which you can tell the Pico to brew stronger or milder depending on your preference. The problem here is that once the wort is created by the Pico, there are many ways for the user to screw up the beer. Do breweries really want to risk people’s first experience with their beers being handled this way? Only time will tell.



For many homebrewers, the idea of fully automated brewing robots is a step too far. I would say that the hands-on aspect is a big part of the appeal of homebrewing. The satisfaction of saying, “I made that with my own two hands” is enormous. The new wave of brewing tools still has plenty in store for them too. From all-in-one units that help save space and simplify brewing like the Grainfather and the BREWHA, to products that give you realtime SG and temperature data of your fermenting beer on your smartphone like the BeerBug (if they get the kinks worked out). Whether or not we like the way it’s going, the next few years will have a very large impact on the future of homebrewing. Our homebrew toolbox is about to be blown wide open. We are only now seeing the first strip tease of the smart homebrew gadgets. There may be opposition to some of these within the homebrew community but as the new wave of tools bring in new brewers, the community itself will change. All of these products are tools that we can use to help us brew better beer, and help us keep brewing as our lives change. I am certainly looking forward to seeing how the future will help me dive deeper into brewing without taking away from the most important part of my life, my family.



*I had a quick exchange with Annie Johnson and asked her what it was that actually convinced her that the Zymatic wasn’t a gimmick. It was of course the beer. Annie emailed Picobrew and asked if she could see the Zymatic (still in prototype phase). After she tasted some of the beers made on the machine, she encouraged them to enter some homebrew competitions. A few weeks later the Zymatic had racked up several awards in some difficult categories like IPA. That was also with someone who was new to brewing, using recipes from BYO and Zymurgy. Later, Annie brewed her light lager on a Zymatic and it won gold it’s category in the CA State Fair, 4th best in Show. No more convincing needed! On closing Annie said, “Still, it’s just one more tool for a Homebrewer. It is not designed nor meant to replace more conventional gear.”

The new plan


Now that I got that first post out of the way, there are going to be some changes around here. First off, you can now check out The Smoking Bottle on Facebook. I plan on sharing things like what’s cooking on the grill, photos from events, or news in the beer world. It will not be too often and I promise I will never post cat photos, no matter how grumpy they look. I haven’t even liked my own page yet so I’m very curious who the first person will be.

Secondly, there is the new address. The old still works, and will continue to do so, but the more official sounding is now in action.

Lastly, I have started working on how this blog looks. It will take a while until I’m happy with it, so don’t be surprised if it looks different every time you come back. Any feedback you want to give would be appreciated. Is there anything you would like to see on the site?

The original plan


2015 was penciled in as my return to brewing. The past few years have been chaotic… birth of a second child, fixing up our old house, selling our old house, finding a new house, moving, working, and keeping sane all while trying to be a good husband and daddy. Sure I probably could have scheduled in a brew session here and there, but it just seemed too selfish to block out that much time for something that no one else in the house gets any enjoyment from. I am the type of person that obsesses over details and data so I am completely unavailable while I’m brewing, plus all the planning, transfers, bottling/kegging etc. Then, as life seemed to be smoothing itself out, I started planning my next brew when something unexpected happened. At the not so ripe age of 36, I had a stroke. More precisely a Spontaneous Carotid Artery Dissection that caused a stroke. That put a stop to many things.

What I found really sad was that there was no reason why it happened to me. I did not live a “risky” lifestyle. It was just a bit of bad luck. Part of my carotid artery just decided it would be funny to fail. I’m more or less OK now, but It’s still recovery at the moment. My big problems now are the lack of concentration, patience, and tasks such as writing (It took quite a while to write this short post). Now I just want to get back a little control of my life. Of course there are many things in life more important than grilling and brewing, but this blog is not about those. It is my outlet for all things brewing and grilling related. The situation has made me think about what aspects I like the most about my life, work, and hobbies as well as how they can or can not be combined. Outdoor cooking can continue just as it always has. It’s something that the whole family can enjoy, and it generally doesn’t take too much time. Brewing is different. It takes more planning, more time, and more concentration. Thankfully, the kids are growing up (now 4 and 6) and I know I will be able to find some time to brew. However, I also know it won’t be as often as I’d like. I really need to find some ways to either shorten my brew days or make the process more automated so I am more available while I do it. Something like how my BBQ Guru PartyQ gives me some precious time with my family when I’m smoking a pork shoulder for 15 hours. Any good suggestions will be embraced with open arms.

If you read this post hoping for some sort of amazing conclusion or revelation, you will be disappointed. I didn’t really have a goal for this blog post. It was really just a way of me trying to get back at it. A bit of therapy for myself. Now that I got that out of the way, perhaps I can post something more interesting next time.

… now I really need to spend some time bringing this old ugly blog up to date. I never liked the way it looked.

Daddy’s little helpers

daddyWith two Little Smokies running around it’s hard to find time for the selfish contemplation that is brewing and barbecuing. Brewing takes a good 5 hours from the time I get the supplies out untill everything is cleaned up. Cooking up some pulled pork takes about 15 hours, not to mention the prep time the night before. True, I don’t have to sit next to the smoker for 15 hours, but it’s always on my mind. In my search to be more zen with my barbecuing I’ve found a couple “helpers” to keep my alter ego of Super-Stressed-Out-Action-Man at bay.

First off, for the past couple years I have been using terracotta flower pot bases and tin-foil in my water pan instead of water. This is definitely nothing new or groundbreaking, but I finally got around to trying it and now I wouldn’t have it any other way. The whole point of using a water pan is to help keep a steady temperature in your smoker by increasing the thermal mass. Unfortunately water evaporates and needs to be topped up. Then there is the mess of dirty water with all the fat drippings from your meat. Now I just peel away the top sheet of aluminium foil and throw it away.

That alone is not enough to keep the fire under control. Luckily I now have the PartyQ from BBQ Guru. The PartyQ is one of the cheaper Automatic Temperature Controllers on the market. It isn’t the most feature rich ATC but I was looking for a simple set it and forget it solution. I don’t need to see a temperature log on my smartphone. It also runs off of 4 AA batteries, which is good since the nearest electrical socket is far from my smoker. I did read some negative reviews of the PartyQ but those seemed to be coming from people who were trying to use the PartyQ to bring their fire up to temperature. This can take a while, lead to a massive overshoot in temp, and kill your batteries. I have had no problems so far and the temperature in my smoker stays rocksteady. The only time I see a change is when I open the lid to mop the meat, but this is quickly taken care of without any action on my part. The PartyQ has been a dream and if you follow a couple of basic rules then it is a very powerful tool.

The PartyQ has one probe with an alligator clip on it. The clip can be pulled off so that the probe fits through the BBQ guru probe eyelets I installed years ago for my wireless Maverick ET-73. Since I have the Maverick I didn’t need to get an ATC which has a food probe too, and I can still monitor my smoker and meat temps from inside the house.

How I use the PartyQ:

  • Install Maverick ET-73 and PartyQ
  • Start the fire with the Minion Method and assemble the WSM
  • Bottom vents 80% open (Except for where the PartyQ is attached of course. Follow instruction manual for that)
  • When smoker is close to target temp, close bottom vents & switch on PartyQ (if the temp overshoots it can take a while before it comes back down)
  • When the cook is done pull off the PartyQ and insert the kill plug.

now here is a very boring video of the PartyQ in Action



Pork tenderloin gets cooked around here quite a lot. Normally its a bit of a no-thought-needed item to throw on the grill. This time I wanted to stir things up a bit. First I decided upon some flavors (apple, pecan, whiskey, maple syrup) and set about figuring out how to combine them. I ended up stuffing the tenderloin with the apple and pecan, and saucing it up with the whiskey and maple syrup. Since it turned out so well I thought I’d share it.


  • 1-2 slices of bread depending on size (cubed and toasted)
  • 1 large apple
  • 1 small onion
  • 1+ tsp dried sage
  • -1/4 cup coarsely chopped pecans

For the stuffing, sautee the onion and chopped pecans in a decent amount of butter. After the onion goes translucent add the diced apple and sage. Let that cook till the apple softens a bit and then add the toasted bread cubes. Off the fire, lid on, set aside.

In the meantime slice open the tenderloin in a sort of upside down Y and then open it up. Heap the cooled stuffing onto this sheet of meat, fold it closed, and attempt to lace it up. A third hand can be useful. After that, season the meat with fresh ground black pepper and sea salt. Cook indirect (not above the coals, with the lid closed) and baste several times with a 50/50 mixture of whiskey and maple syrup.

Sauce: as usual I didn’t take notes on the sauce so this is an approximation.

  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1/3 – 1/2 cup whiskey depending on how boozy you want it.
  • 4 tbs maple syrup
  • 3/4 cup heavy cream
  • Pepper and salt to taste

Sautee the onion in a tablespoon or two of butter. Deglaze with the whiskey. Let that reduce to 50% and add the maple syrup and cream. Simmer until its the desired thickness (stir frequently) then run the sauce through a sieve. If you do make it too thick, don’t try diluting it with more whiskey. Don’t ask.

Golden Goblets 2011

2011 was yet another great year. The highlight was obviously the addition of a second little one to our family. This blissful year didn’t really carry over to the blog though. I have a back-log of grilled treats I would like to share since the grill was fired up quite a lot (not so much in the last few months). On the beery side though I really didn’t accomplish much, and my Golden Goblet picks reflect that. I had to drop several categories from last year because I simply couldn’t come up with any winners due to a “lack of entries”.

  • Best Belgian Beer – Orval (see pub of the year)
  • Best International BeerVerdi imperial stout
  • Best Homebrew I made in 2011Road Runner Rebel Stout
  • Best Beer induced Experience – working at the Alvinne Craft Beer Festival
  • Best Beer Graphic(s) – this was a tough one but I ended up going with the overall look of Red Brick Brewing’s new packaging. Too bad they didn’t carry these new graphics over to all parts of their brand, like their website. Work on that guys.
  • Worst Beer Graphic(s)Westvleteren Brick
  • Pub/Bar/cafe of the YearMelkerij. This is not a cafe you will find in any beer guide or hear about from any other beer geek. Its just not that kind of place… But in 2011 it was exactly what I needed. Its in the deep dark woods, has lots of outdoor seating and a massive playground. Yup, I said playground. With a baby and a toddler it wasn’t easy to get away and explore far off specialty bars, but when you can see your little girl having a ball on the slide while you and your baby sit in the dappled sunlight enjoying an Orval, those specialty bars just seem a bit ridiculous
  • Beer Festival of the YearAlvinne Craft Beer Festival
  • Beer Retailer of the YearDranken Geers. They have really done a good job in getting some of the better rare stuff and some great non-belgians. All for a good price too.
  • Best Beer Blog or WebsiteOh Beautiful Beer
  • Food and Beer Pairing of the YearPulled Pork, RodenQue sauce, and Rodenbach Grand Cru
  • Beer I’m most looking forward to in 2012New addition 2011
  • In 2012 I’d Most Like To – like last year, Brew on a real brewery system… perhaps another collaboration?
  • Open Category – This year the Open Category is awarded to the brewer who has done the least in 2011 and who really needs to get things going in 2012. I’m calling it the “Get your ducks in a row trophy,” and the winner is… (drum roll)… me!

Hope you had a good 2011 and hope you have an even better 2012!

The proof is in the barrel

I’ve had a few chances to play around with the Gueuze barrel chips now and thought I’d share my findings (on both grilling use and beer use).

The Beer side: When I first opened the bag of chips I immediately threw some into starter wort to try and grow up the critters living on the chips. Not surprising, the bugs did get going pretty quickly. Also not surprising it developed some green mold. It looked and smelled decent for about 4 or 5 days and I thought that it might end up being usable. Then the aroma really went down hill and the green monster started growing. Oh well. I still haven’t dumped it out (too afraid) and I was thinking that I could possibly pull some of the beer out from under the mold and try to culture that up… but really, I’m too lazy for all that. Plus I like the reliability of buying pure strains and mixing them myself, or culturing up dregs from bottled beers.

The Fire side: The chips have been used to add some smoke to pork, fish, and numerous chickens. Result… Shocker, the smoke flavor is just like oak! Well, to be fair I think there may be a slight difference that I haven’t yet been able to nail down, but unless you are going to do a side by side oak vs gueuze barrel (made from oak) smoke test, I don’t think anyone would pick up on a difference. I actually do plan on doing that some time though (Bourbon barrel chips vs Gueuze barrel chips).

That being said I do actually like using these chips. In general, they are chipped quite small and don’t need to be soaked too long before throwing on your fire. That makes them ideal for quickly adding smoke to items that aren’t slow-cooked for 60 hours. Also handy if you are “planning-challenged” like me and realize that you forgot to soak your chips as you’re about to throw the meat on the grill.


  • Gueuze Barrel chips are great for a quick burst of smoke when grilling
  • Don’t bother using them for long smokes
  • Keep them out of your homebrew (just culture up dregs from a bottle if you must)

I wonder if barrel chips from a good kriek would offer anything extra? Hey,Peter De Clercq,  how about that? I’ll help test them out for you.!

Beer and Mood #1

Every once in a while I feel like writing something a bit different. I could hop on the beer trend bandwagon and do pieces on beer and food pairings, but I find all that a bit ridiculous. Not the beer with food, that’s just logical to me, but everyone seems to be making this a “new” idea. Plus I kind of throw some of that into my cooking posts anyways. How about Beer and Mood pairings? A look at enjoying beer and matching it with a mood, atmosphere, event, music or whatever floats my boat. This will not be a regularly scheduled series of posts, I will just write something up whenever the mood strikes me (read that as probably not too often).

Beer and Mood # 1 – The secret delicacy
“So what is your favorite beer?” It’s the dreaded question for most beery types. Many have some lame answer along the lines of “the next beer,” or “I haven’t tried them all yet,” or even worse they go off on a diatribe about beer styles. I don’t really mess around anymore. I throw out a couple commercial beers and a homebrew. One beer that always gets mentioned is Oerbier Reserva from De Dolle Brouwers. Despite my favoritism for lower ABV beers, this 13%ABV brew always tickles me in places I probably shouldn’t admit.

Oerbier Reserva is a complex dark sour ale. Each vintage has its own variation on a theme of utter brilliance. I am always surprised with the all around balance, layered tart and funk, and the way it dances around my mouth doing back-flips off my tongue. Dark fruit compote tainted with rich balsamic vinegar, infused with a hearty bordeaux, prodded by autumn spice, poked with tannins, and at times sprinkled with cocoa. That only begins to describe some of the aromas and flavors you have the privilege of discovering when drinking this beer. More simply put, it’s a damn fine glass of beer.

Oerbier Reserva vertical @ De Kulminator

Normally, big beers like to strut their stuff in front of a group of beer snobs, while they talk at length about its many facets and compare the various vintages. While I have definitely enjoyed a vertical tasting or two of this beer with like minded nerds, this is not the best way to enjoy it.

Mrs. Smokey has a day job that involves thinking and all that smart stuff that I don’t have to worry about. Due to this daily brain-drain she tends to watch the more mindless programs on TV in the evening. The kind that normally make me fearful for the future of mankind… I’m talking to you Kardashians! While I detest these shows, it is at this time when I find my own bit of beervana. After making sure Mrs, Smokey has her cola I sit down in the corner of the couch and begin to pour the beer. Already the world starts to get a little foggy. As I lean back and put one arm around my wife and stick my nose in the glass, the world completely falls away. The only things left are the beer, my tastebuds, my wife and an occasional glimpse of the TV. At this point I can actually appreciate the hilarity of the intellectually challanged rich celebrity on TV (normally they just make me angry). It’s a bit of a secret moment. Since Mrs. Smokey doesn’t drink beer I feel no need to share or talk about the beer. Its all mine. No beer geekery to get in the way or take away from my moment of pure enjoyment. Brain-off, beer in. The flavors intermingle with the comfort of the couch and the warmth of Mrs. Smokey while the lighter side of life floats on by. One of the beer world’s greatest achievements paired with the worst that pop culture can throw at you. A real double rainbow moment in my head.

rant: hit with the ugly brick

The monks at the Sint-Sixtus abbey have been well know for brewing up some top-notch beers. Look at any beer ranking site and Westvleteren 12 is sure to be close to the top. It is also one of the facts that every Belgian likes to spout at Americans who start talking about beer. That statement is then usually followed by something like, “much better than your Bud, eh?” Of course that proud Belgian has probably never tasted Westvleteren (or Budweiser) and if it’s not available at the corner store for next to nothing, he/she will never taste it. Of course there are people here who do care about good beer so I don’t let me paint too grim of a picture.

Back to the cheap and wide availability of beer. About a year ago it was announced that the monks had struck a deal with Belgian low-cost-leading grocery store chain Colruyt to sell a limited release gift pack of Westvleteren beer. This was to bring in some much needed funds to renovate the deteriorating buildings of the abbey. Seeing that Colruyt is a client of the product design firm where I work, my boss decided that I, being the beer guy and all, should throw together a quick concept for the gift box. A few hours later we sent our vision of how it could be done to Colruyt. Eventually they got back to us saying that they really liked the concept but said that the packaging had already been settled upon long ago. Oh well, it was worth the try.

Fast forward to a couple weeks ago: As I was reading through my daily feeds I came across a post on Danny’s site saying that a date had been set for the Westvleteren/Colruyt release. I clicked on through to read the details when all of a sudden my beer-loving mind was smashed against a cliche covered brick. Photos of the gift packaging had been released. It wasn’t a pretty sight. (and I’m not the only one who thinks so)

Someone must have thought “hmm beer, monks, and rebuilding. I’ve got it! Lets create the most uninspiring drivel we can think of and make this special fundraiser with one worlds most sought after beers into nothing more than a cliche. Brilliant!*” WTF! There was no thought put into this box. In this case, I know the beer will sell itself, but now it just seems like a silly marketing stunt rather than a worthwhile fundraiser for the abbey. Ok, sure, the idea behind the box is a brick and by buying “bricks” you are helping to rebuild the abbey. Really? That’s the best you could come up with? And the over-used ye olde font and gothic arches? Oh right, they are monks and monks are religious and religion is old. Have you seen the plans for the new buildings? They are modern and sober and there are no effing gothic arches!

In my not so humble opinion they really should have put some more thought into it and designed a package which links to what they are doing, sans cliché. I am not saying that my design (below) is the end all be all of monk-made-beer packaging, but it’s certainly no brick with gothic arches.

(if you want to see the PDF presentation we put together for Colruyt then click here)

Obviously I am biased, but sometimes I look at the state of Belgian Beer labels and graphics and just get pissed off at the level of creativity and care. I guess brewers here just take the nonchalant path and say that it is the beer in the bottle that counts and not the look of the label. True, in an ideal world that’s right, but here on planet Earth we can’t taste the beer through the packaging while we are at the store. The label is all we have to go by. If you see a beer with a beautiful label next to one with a crappy photo and some comic sans text, then you know which beer will be selling fastest (in this case I know the Westies will have no problem selling, but that doesn’t excuse the other 500 belgian beers with sh**ty labels). I also think it gives an impression of how the brewery works. If they care enough to put some time, effort and thought into a nice label then they probably don’t cut corners on the beer behind the label either. Of all countries, Belgium has the most exceptions to this rule. So many good beers get overlooked because their packaging looks like a 10 year old designed it.

Keep up the good work you wonderful Belgian beer label designers*

*read with a shot of sarcasm