Homebrewing 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 in 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.”
One thought on “Do robots dream of electric beer?”
Great write-up. I actually worked very closely at Microsoft with the guys behind the Zymatic. Bill was my boss and Avi worked on my team. Very smart people. Such a small world. I’ve wondered about the same things you mention about the overall process and enjoyment of the multi-phase effort of brewing. But, great point about different things going on in life and the ability for some technology to allow continued enjoyment. I hope you get to try one of these devices.