The concept of it all is almost too good to be true. Start with some water and a package of ingredients. A few weeks later, pull a handle as your freshly made brew comes pouring out of the tap and into your glass. With PicoBrew Brewvana, on display at CES 2016, that dream comes close to fruition, at least in concept. You'll have to take a couple of simple intermediary steps, and the whole system is large and costly, but it really does automate every major step of brewing, right down to tapping it for your drinking delight.
We've looked at a couple of automated beer machines before. In particular, the PicoBrew Zymatic from the same company also had a lot of promise as an automated entry point for homebrewers. But it let us down as an option for beginners because, though it did automate several steps of the process, it left a few crucial ones, such as fermentation, up to the user. We ended up with several beers that were less than satisfactory. If we were more experienced, we could have avoided the problem, but then we probably wouldn't have needed the Zymatic. The similar Brewie system we saw at CES also takes the process up to fermentation.
The mash and the boil
The PicoBrew Brewvana finishes the job. It's actually a combination of a couple of machines we've looked at before. The PicoBrew Pico does most of the work -- it brews through fermentation like the Zymatic -- but it makes things much simpler than its predecessor. You'll order Pico Packs containing the malt and hops to make the beer of your choice, load it all into a plastic container that slides into the metal Pico, then let the Pico do its thing and you'll have uncarbonated beer (called wort) within two hours.
That's very fast. In that time, the Pico needs to steep water in the malted grains, then boil it with the hops. Usually, extracting the right amount of sugar from the malt takes several hours, and the Zymatic went through the process slowly. A representative from PicoBrew assured me that with the Pico, it's still an authentic process that simply speeds everything up with steam.
We'll see. Another problem we had with the Zymatic was a thin malt body on some of the beers, likely caused by an inefficient extraction process. Speeding up that process certainly doesn't alleviate my concerns. But I tried a few sips of a pale ale at the show and it had a full body with a pronounced hop character, as it should.
We actually got some hands on time with the PicoBrew Pico back in October, and again, it's only half of the equation with this combined system. The Pico is the setup, the other half of the system, the KegSmarts, brings the process the rest of the way.
Fermentation for carbonation
After you have your wort, the Pico will pour your beer into a mini keg, you'll add your yeast so fermentation can begin, then attach the keg to KegSmarts. KegSmarts uses temperature probes, a fridge, and a heated sleeve to keep your container of beer at its ideal temperature for fermentation throughout the couple of weeks the yeast needs to carbonate your beverage. It can even adjust the temperature part way through if the recipe calls for it.
Finally, you'll pour your beer into your serving keg, connect it to the tap that's also part of KegSmarts and it'll use a carbon dioxide tank and a regulator to pour the frothy drink into your glass.
All of that sounds great to me, but it does make the whole thing together very large, not to mention complicated and expensive.
All together, the system includes:
- The Pico ($1,000 on its own)
- The Kegsmarts Head Unit - the part that includes the taps and the pieces for temperature regulation ($600 on its own)
- A carbon dioxide tank and regulator
- 4 1.75 gallon kegs
- 4 KegPlates so KegSmarts can measure the weight of your beer while it ferments and adjust it's temp control accordingly.
- A fridge with shelves custom fit for your kegs.
The PicoBrew Brewvana together costs a head spinning $3,500 (£2,390, AU$4,960). All together, though, the equipment looks like an attractive (to me at least) beer station with the petite Pico and the KegSmarts sitting on top of a fridge. It's inside the fridge that it looks like a science project. But that's also the part that's unique and would be most difficult for a homebrewer to replicate.
And if all of this makes brewing delicious beer completely foolproof, it'll be worth it to some. You'll certainly be paying the price for this automation, as doing this without the beer bot would cost much, much less.
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