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Brewing with Pico: The final batch

Beer bot chronicles, part 4: Wrapping up my month of testing with one last brew.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Editors' Note: This is an ongoing series documenting our testing of the PicoBrew Pico and leading up to a full, rated review because beer is supposed to be fun.

Week 4: November 20

This is it -- the final entry in the Beer Bot Chronicles. I've spent the last month testing the $800 PicoBrew Pico. It's a beer brewing robot that automatically turns a box of prepackaged ingredients -- called PicoPaks -- into 5 liters of drinkable beer. Using Pico, you can brew your own beer without doing many of the steps yourself. I've compared it to a microwave and the $20 PicoPaks to TV dinners. It's also similar to a Keurig coffee maker in that you hit a button and get a drink.

Only unlike a Keurig or a microwave, brewing with the Pico still takes time. The brewing process is automated, but it lasts a couple of hours. Then, you have to let your beer ferment, which, depending on how you do it, can take anywhere from four days to two weeks. Thus, I've spent my last month putting this beer bot but through its paces.

Scroll down to find my previous entries. In week 1, I dive much deeper into the basics of how this machine works -- and my concerns therein. I also discuss the experience of brewing with it for the first time. For week 2, I chatted with PicoBrew's Brewmaster-in-residence Annie Johnson while dealing with some troubleshooting. Week 3, I finally tasted that first beer. This week I brew again, trying Pico's remaining features and hoping practice makes perfect.

It'll be a couple of weeks before I get to taste the final results of this second batch, and at that point, I'll be ready for a full review. In the meantime, here's the last chapter of the PicoBrew Pico progress report.

Preparations

Before I could brew again, it turned out I had more cleanup to do. I've been trying to diligently follow the instruction manual throughout testing. I didn't like the way my first beer tasted, and I want to minimize the chance that the poor result is my fault. After the first brew, though, I just sort of washed everything with soapy water and called it a day. On its own, that took awhile -- between the various hoses, valves, and kegs, Pico comes with a lot of pieces.

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Lots of pieces to clean.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

The Pico also uses steam and heat to clean pipes before you brew, helping you not have to sanitize quite as much as you would when homebrewing. But I checked the instruction manual one more time before starting my second brew, and as it turned out, I wasn't close to done with the recommended process for cleaning up between batches.

Pico asks you to soak all of those pieces in hot water with fragrance free powdered detergent. You also have to completely disassemble the valves of the main brewing keg. Keep a wrench handy. You'll want to be extra careful when cleaning these valves -- each has a lot of small pieces and springs that could easily slip away.

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Especially once you dissemble the keg, some of the pieces are small and easy to lose.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

On the one hand, I'm glad I cleaned the valves -- each had a buildup of sediment from the last brew still caked to their sides. On the other hand, after spending 20 minutes disassembling and reassembling everything, I have a harder and harder time seeing how using the Pico saves you any discernible amount of time or effort over simply brewing beer by hand.

Tinkering with the brew

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Buffalo Sweat's PicoPak -- ready to go.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Once I finished cleaning, I started my second brew -- Buffalo Sweat by Tallgrass Brewing Company -- a cream stout. Unlike last time, when I was content to just get through the process, this time I tinkered with both the IBUs (bitterness) and ABV (alcohol content).

Doing so is relatively simple, though not as exact as I'd hoped. Once you insert your PicoPak, instead of hitting start, simply turn the wheel next to the display to scroll for more options. Click the wheel once you see "Adjust Recipe" then you can scale the IBUs and ABV up or down within the acceptable range of the given beer.

My problem isn't that you're limited to a range -- that's understandable. I take issue with the fact that the display doesn't offer any specifics -- it's just a series of boxes with an arrow marking the default. Turn the wheel one way to color in more boxes -- but Pico doesn't give any indication of how much you're altering the brew as you turn.

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I wish Pico offered a more precise way to make changes.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

You'll see your selected IBUs and ABV on the display once you make your choices and hit start -- you can also find it on the PicoBrew site where it tracks the progress of your brewing session. That's the first time you see actual numbers on the Pico, though, and at that point, it's too late to change anything. You can look up the defaults, but again, you don't have any indication of how much you're altering those numbers if you do want to make changes.

Next steps

I slightly increased both the IBUs and the ABV of Buffalo Sweat. We'll see if that makes a difference in the final result. I'll ask my coworkers to do a blind taste test of the Pico variety and store bought Buffalo Sweat. If any coworker confuses the two or prefers the Pico -- that'll be a big win for this machine.

Again, that won't be for a couple of weeks, but I won't have much to do between now and then besides wait. Pico offers a way to speed up both the fermentation and carbonation of your beer. I took both shortcuts last time. This time, I'm not going to take either. Hopefully, a longer, natural fermentation and carbonation will let Pico's version of Buffalo Sweat realize its full chocolaty potential.

Week 3: November 13

I ended last week on a hopeful note. After I talked with PicoBrew's BrewMaster-in-residence, Annie Johnson, I started to believe in the Pico despite the troubles I've had thus far. Now that I've tried my first beer from the machine, that hope is fading.

The PicoBrew Pico is an $800 automatic beer brewer. You insert prepackaged ingredients called PicoPaks -- think TV dinners for beer -- into the machine and hit a button. The Pico does the rest of the work for you. It's like a Keurig for beer, only it replicates an authentic brewing process so it's not quick. You still need to add yeast and wait for it to ferment after the Pico finishes cooking.

Scroll down for my initial concerns about the Pico and more basics on how it works in my week 1 report and my chat with Johnson in week 2. This week, I finally tried the beer.

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Pico comes with a 5L serving keg.

Chris Monroe/CNET

The taste

A quick recap: I initially brewed on Monday, Oct. 24. The cooking process takes a couple of hours, but it's almost completely hands off. I let the fresh wort (unfermented beer) cool overnight per Pico's instructions, then added yeast and let it ferment for a few days. Early last week, I tried to move the beer from the fermenting container to the serving container. I ran into problems and didn't have time to troubleshoot for a couple of days, so I wasn't able to carbonate my beer until late last week.

I tried my first sip of finished beer two weeks after I started the process. Granted, some of the delay was due to my own schedule, but I was under the impression that I wouldn't have to allot so much time for the process in terms of hands-on work while brewing and the length of time between brewing and drinking.

That first sip was quite bad. I used the Pico to make Annie's London Ale, which is an English style Pale Ale with alleged hints of toffee and caramel. First, the beer wasn't pale -- it was cloudy. I tasted a little malt up front, but that faded quickly. Little to no flavor popped up to replace it. The beer was weak, bland and flat. I didn't taste any toffee or caramel. None of my coworkers liked it, and a few dumped their glasses immediately after one sip and refused to take another. I didn't react that strongly. I've tasted plenty of homebrew from first timers before, and this is at that level if not slightly better. But it's certainly not good.

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This pale ale wasn't pale...or good.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Letting the wort cool overnight may have contributed to the cloudiness. I'll give the Pico some credit -- I was worried that the overnight cool would lead to infection. The automated cleaning process also gave me cause for concern. Fortunately, the beer I made wasn't infected.

I give less credit to PicoBrew's options to speed up the natural brewing process -- I believe they had a negative impact on the beer's taste. Pico provides instructions and tools for both speeding up the process and fermenting your beer naturally. For the first batch, I used a fast fermentation process and forced carbonation, another alternative PicoBrew provides to hasten brewing (as opposed to adding priming sugar and let carbonation occur naturally).

With my next batch, I'll try natural fermentation and natural carbonation. I'll also be more confident about the process since I've worked out the kinks in this round. The next beer I'll brew -- Buffalo Sweat from Tallgrass Brewing -- is a commercially available Oatmeal Stout. I'll be able to compare the finished product side-by-side with store-bought beer, and I'll subject my coworkers to a blind taste test.

One bad beer doesn't condemn the PicoBrew Pico. It was my first time using the machine, after all. That said, it's supposed to be foolproof, and this bad beer invalidates that claim. The only remaining saving grace of the Pico is its ability to potentially produce beer that's not available in your region. Now that I'm practiced with the machine, it needs to replicate Buffalo Sweat and do well enough to fool a couple of coworkers. If it doesn't, I'll have a hard time finding a reason to recommend this $800 novelty.

Week 2: November 6

I haven't tried any instant beer yet, and I'm a little angry about it. I've tested the $800 (roughly £640 and AU$1,040) PicoBrew Pico for two weeks now. Despite its claim to help you brew professional quality beer quickly (think Keurig for beer with PicoPaks instead of pods), I haven't gotten to enjoy the fruits of my more-extensive-than-expected labor.

For more on the basics of what Pico is and what it's like to brew with it, scroll down to part 1 of this review-in-progress below. This week, I troubleshoot and talk to Annie Johnson, PicoBrew's BrewMaster in residence.

Failure to launch

Speaking of Johnson, I began to brew some of her beer, Annie's London Ale, last week under the assumption that it would be ready this week. We brewed on Monday, Oct. 24. I let the wort cool overnight per the instructions. On Tuesday, I added the yeast so my wort could gain the alcohol and carbonation it needed to take the last step to become beer. Natural fermentation can take a couple of weeks, but Pico offers a method to speed up fermentation. I opted for the faster route this time (I'll try them both by the time I give Pico a full, scored review). Starting Pico's fast fermentation process was simple. You just stir in the yeast and seal the top. Finishing it wasn't.

In addition to brewing your wort, Pico helps you "rack" your beer: moving it from the keg where it's been fermenting to a serving keg. Even though Pico simplifies brewing, completing the process isn't nearly as simple as popping a pod into a Keurig and getting a cup of coffee. The instruction manual comes in handy, but my initial idea that Pico allows you to just push a button and brew beer start to finish has long been debunked. And when I tried to rack the beer, matters worsened.

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In addition to the instruction manual, Pico's display walks you through the racking process.

Chris Monroe/CNET

After I got the various hoses and valves in place, I started the pump. It whirred into action, but the beer barely dripped through the hose. I let it run for a while to see if the system could solve the problem on its own, but after several minutes, only a few drops of beer had transferred.

Fortunately, the customer support person I talked to was friendly and patient. We walked through a few different possibilities before finding the problem: trub had clogged the outlet valve. Trub is essentially used yeast that settles at the bottom of your fermenting container. To fix the clog, I had to disassemble the inlet valve with a wrench, pull out the long metal pipe that feeds the beer to the valve and rinse as well as wash each piece until they were clean before reassembling everything to try again.

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Fixing the clog involved disassembling this valve.

Chris Monroe/CNET

This time, the beer flowed to the serving keg as it was supposed to, and I could move to the final step of the process: carbonation. My brew of Annie's London Ale is sitting in my fridge right now, attached to a regulator and a small canister of carbon dioxide.

Part of the delay was my fault. The first day I tried to rack the beer, I only had enough time for what I thought would be a short process, and I had to put off troubleshooting until I could fit it in my schedule. Still, disassembling the system to unclog hoses underlines the fact that while Pico effectively automates an authentic beer brewing process, it still takes plenty of time and effort on the user's part to push your beer over the finish line.

Searching for value

My beer will be ready soon, and I'm looking forward to tasting the results of my labor, but I'm having a harder time seeing the value of Pico given its cost. The machine itself is $800. PicoPaks are $19 and up (roughly £15 and AU$25), and only produce around five liters of beer. That's approximately 14 bottles. Let's say a six pack of good beer costs $10. Given that cost, one batch of Pico really only saves you about $10, so you'd have to brew 80 batches of beer to make up your initial expense.

Those savings don't account for the time you have to spend learning how to use the machine or cleaning up after a brew. Though Pico takes care of most of its own cleaning, and the main plastic container that holds the PicoPak is dishwasher safe, I still spent 10 minutes scrubbing the dried up yeast out of my fermenting keg after I transferred the beer out of it.

I'm still not convinced that Pico's self-cleaning system works, and I'm still concerned that letting my hot wort cool overnight would have exposed it to infection (see last week's entry below on that). I talked about these issues with Johnson of PicoBrew, and she did well to reassure me on a lot of my worries.

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Brewing with Pico is definitely not brainless.

Chris Monroe/CNET

A reassuring chat

On letting the wort cool overnight, Johnson assured me the chance of infection is very small. "The plug creates a vacuum as it cools," she said. "I haven't lost any batches."

She talked about how cooling the wort quickly is only a staple of modern brewing. She admitted professional breweries benefit greatly from the process because of the large volume they produce, but the possibility of negative effects is almost negligible given the small batches of Pico. She did note, however, that extremely hoppy beers might lose some of their initial aroma while cooling, but you could accommodate for the loss by adding hops after the wort is cooled in a process called "dry hopping."

Next, I asked her about Pico's fast fermentation process. Given how genuine Pico is at almost every other stage of brewing, I'm surprised it offers this shortcut, and I wanted to see if Johnson thought the quicker method still produced an authentic beer. To my surprise, she admitted that she always follows the traditional fermentation path herself. By sealing the keg for fast fermentation, you do go faster, but "you'll lose some of the esters." In other words, you might sacrifice some of the subtle flavors of the beer.

"I much prefer the traditional route," she said, "but it's important to have options."

Speaking of options, that's exactly how she justified the value of PicoBrew.

"It doesn't matter where you live," she said. Pico can send you regional beer from a variety of areas. Sending ingredients via PicoPaks helps get around strict distribution laws regarding alcohol, so you can "try beers from all over the world that you can't find on your local shelf," Johnson said.

I'm excited about that possibility, but the beer will have to taste a lot like what the brewer intended to make the Pico worthwhile. On that note, Johnson told me that the head brewer of the popular brewery Rogue made his own "Dead Guy Ale" on Pico and said, "Yeah, that's my beer."

Game on, Annie Johnson. Check back next week for notes from my first taste test. I'll finally get to try some of Pico's beer myself, and then I'll brew another batch to see if I can make the process go a little more smoothly.

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Here's hoping it's all worth it.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Week 1: October 30

We're a few days into testing the newest beer-brewing robot -- the $800 PicoBrew Pico (converted, that's about £640 and AU$1,040, and a nice drop from its initially announced $1,000, £816, AU$1,316 price). We've brewed one batch and we're waiting for it to ferment, so we're not yet ready to issue a final verdict -- we'll want to try out at least one more batch after that and taste the results of both first. But with one brew under our belt, here are our thoughts so far.

Basics -- Wait, what the heck is this Pico thing?

The PicoBrew Pico has a lot in common with a microwave. Roughly the same size and heft, you insert prepackaged, TV dinner-esque ingredients called "PicoPaks" that cost $19 and up. Then you hit a button and Pico does the cooking for you to turn those ingredients into beer.

That might be where the comparisons between Pico and a microwave end. Using Pico is faster and easier than brewing on your own for the first time, but it's not as brainless as using a microwave, and it still takes a while. After you hit start, the Pico can take as much as 2 to 3 hours to cook your beer -- from there, you should expect to wait at least another handful of days for your beer to ferment.

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The huge box Pico ships in includes all of the pieces you need for the process, and unlike with a microwave, those pieces are numerous -- from hoses and kegs to valves and airlocks. Brewing beer with Pico is relatively simple compared to homebrewing, but you'll want to keep the textbook-sized instruction manual handy for the first couple of batches.

TV dinners don't taste anything like home-cooked meals, though, and here's where we still don't know just how much the Pico is like a microwave. Does the Pico produce good beer, or is it the TV dinner version of beer? We'll find that out soon.

What we like about Pico: So far so good

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We cut open the PicoPak after our brew to find authentic ingredients.

Chris Monroe/CNET

The Pico's actually the second product from beer startup PicoBrew. The first -- the $2,000 PicoBrew Zymatic -- was also a beer brewing robot, but brewing with the Zymatic was pretty involved, and required a lot of sanitation and overall know-how on your part. PicoBrew has clearly made an effort to streamline the brewing process with the Pico.

The instruction manual is large, but it's also clear and includes helpful illustrations. Using it, I was able to clean the system after unpacking it and brew a batch of beer without looking up any how-tos online. Again, I don't know how the beer I made tastes yet -- it's fermenting now -- but the Pico definitely takes a step in the right direction in terms of simplicity.

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The hops are packed into little tea bags inside a smaller container.

Chris Monroe/CNET

PicoBrew deserves a lot of credit for making the process simple without making it any less authentic. The Pico still goes through the all of the normal steps of brewing beer, and PicoPaks contain all of the expected ingredients -- malted barley, hops, yeast, and priming sugar.

To get started, all you need to do is fill the reservoir and the included keg with distilled water, snap a couple of hoses into place on the keg, then put the PicoPak into the main plastic bin and slide it into place. At that point, you can use the control panel to hit start, and the Pico will recognize the type of beer in your PicoPak and do everything else for you.

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You can monitor your beer's progress online.

Screenshot by Andrew Gebhart/CNET

Pico automatically heats the water to extract sugars from the malt in a process called the mash, then boils that sugary water with hops to balance the flavor -- the same steps you'd go through if you were homebrewing. One clear benefit with the Pico: It precisely controls the temperature throughout the process, which would be tough for you to do on your own if you were homebrewing with a standard stove and stockpot.

The display keeps you posted on its progress and provides an estimated time to completion. You can also customize the alcohol content and bitterness of the brew using the controls, and it'll update the time remaining accordingly. We'll test this functionality further in future brews. You'll obviously be limited to a range of alcohol content and bitterness based on the beer you're making.

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The display keeps you posted on your beer's progress.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Once the Pico's done, you have a keg full of hot, unfermented beer called wort. At that point, you need to plug the top of the keg, and set it aside to cool before adding yeast so your beer can become carbonated and alcoholic. That part takes a couple of days, and it's where we are in the process.

Set the keg of wort aside, and the Pico makes it easy to rinse the reservoirs and filters (and takes care of most cleaning on its own with steam) so you don't have to spend a bunch of time struggling with sanitizer.

What we don't like about Pico: I have my doubts

I really do appreciate how little time and effort I needed to spend cleaning and sanitizing the Pico, but I don't know that the Pico's effective at cleaning itself yet. We still need to try the beer, and if it tastes infected, the time Pico saves by cleaning itself will feel like a waste. Here, though, I'm giving the Pico the benefit of the doubt. I'm hopeful its brainless cleaning process actually works.

I have stronger doubts about the cooling process -- or lack thereof. Again, according to Pico's instructions, after your beer cooks, you seal the keg and set it aside for 24 hours while your wort comes to room temperature. Since you've just prepared it to interact with your yeast, your wort is extremely susceptible to infection during this cooling period.

You unhook the keg and let it sit after your brew.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Most brewers I know, whether professional or amateur, try to cool their wort as quickly as possible to limit the chance of infection. Since Pico already offers precision heating control, not having any mechanism to help cool your beer after the brew feels like a missed opportunity.

Maybe my fears are overblown. You do seal the keg after you finish brewing and reduce the chance of oxidation and exposure to outside contaminants. We'll find out if it worked when we taste the first beer, but I can't say I'm not worried.

The Pico also doesn't help you control the temperature of your beer while it ferments. So if you don't have a cool place to store your beer while the yeast does its thing, the Pico can't help, and high temperatures during fermentation might introduce off flavors.

Finally, though it's certainly easier to use than the Zymatic, the Pico still takes some figuring out thanks to all of the pieces involved in the different stages of brewing. So far, the instruction manual has been a big help, but by the time you get set up with the Pico, you could have just as easily pulled out a stockpot and brewed yourself. Which leads me to the ultimate question...

Given the cost, does this machine make sense?

At first glance, the numbers don't look good for the Pico. The $800 cost might scare away curious hobbyists -- that's still a lot, even it costs less than half the price of the Zymatic. Dedicated homebrewers will likely turn their nose up at a machine that does the job for them. That just leaves the middle ground: beer enthusiasts who want to brew, but who don't have the know-how, the time, or the space.

You should have lots of options as far as what to brew.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Pico could have a big advantage in its beer selection, though. Check out the available PicoPaks here. Not everything listed is available yet, which is understandable as the Pico is just now shipping.

In addition to those on the site, PicoBrew has promised future options from well-known breweries such as Rogue and Dogfish Head, including beers not available in stores. Since it's easier to distribute ingredients than alcoholic beverages, I can see why breweries would be keen to jump on board with PicoBrew and get their beers into the hands of fans that wouldn't normally have access to them.

The idea behind PicoPaks and using Pico to expand your access to quality beer is a noble one that I fully support as a beer enthusiast myself. You can also use the site to customize your own PicoPak, and in that way share your recipes with your friends across the country. You'll be able to use the Pico to make almost any kind of beer excluding barrel-aged varieties and beers that require special fermentation techniques, such as lambics.

For $19 and up per pack, you'll brew around 5 liters, which equals about 14 bottles of beer. Since a good six-pack of craft beer can cost as much as $10-$20, PicoPaks make sense, but are still pricey. The final brew will need to taste a lot like a professional product to make the cost worth it.

That's the big unknown that we'll hope to answer in the coming days, and the Pico's success hangs on it. After all, an $800 beer-brewing machine will go down an awful lot easier if it can truly deliver the genuine taste of hard-to-find beers. We'll keep you posted.

Updated 3 p.m. PT: Corrected amount of beer the unit can produce per use.

Updated 11/3 with Pico's new price.