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 says. (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. Each of the latter two makes just over a gallon of beer per batch. The machines streamline the brewing process while allowing homebrewers to replicate (or at least try to) any of dozens of popular commercial beers, whose breweries have licensed the recipes to PicoBrew in exchange for royalties. It’s a very neat concept. Homebrewers anywhere with a PicoBrew system can now drink a participating brewery’s beer without having to buy it — only the so-called “PicoPak” which one orders (via the phone app) prior to brewing and that contains presorted ingredients in the specific recipe. 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,” says Bill Mitchell, a co-founder of PicoBrew. In theory, he adds, PicoBrew clone beers can taste even better than the commercial beers they’re meant to mimic, since the replicate 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.
Using a PicoBrew system requires some amount of transferring liquids from one container to another. The website advertising for the MiniBrew and iGulu systems, on the other hand, portrays beer-making systems that make brewing look as simple as making coffee in a drip machine.
It isn’t surprising that there is some controversy in homebrewing circles about these machines.
“You don’t even really need to know how to brew with this equipment,” says Damien Perry, a homebrewer in Marinwood. He says these machines, since they reduce the time and space needed to make beer, could expose more people to homebrewing and good beer in general.
Emma Christensen, a San Jose food writer and homebrewer, says she doesn’t see much difference between using a beerbot and buying a sixpack 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 says.
If beerbots do have a household future, she says, 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.”
Duke Geren, a homebrewer in Vancouver, Washington, says he is glad to see craft beer reaching new people in new ways. Still, he prefers a more hands-on approach to making beer.
“While I don’t begrudge anyone who is introduced to brewing through these systems if they are willing to pay the price, I don’t think this is brewing at all,” he says.
Marshall, at Lagunitas, also notes that beerbots could become “another way we’re being overwhelmed by our phones.” Many local homebrewers may find this amusing, since a small sign used to hang in the doorway of S.F. Brewcraft, a major Bay Area homebrewing supplies shop, asks customers to turn their cell phones off before entering.
Now, as we get ready to close out the second decade of the century, many people must turn their phones on just to begin brewing their next batch.
Alastair Bland’s Through the Hopvine runs every week in Zest. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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