I believe the PicoBrew Pico is capable of making good beer, even though I wasn't able to make that happen in two attempts at brewing, following the instructions to the letter.
Like its more expensive sibling, the $2,000 PicoBrew Zymatic from 2015, the $800 Pico automates the key parts of the brewing process, but it doesn't save you any time. It guides you through the first few brewing steps over the course of a couple of hours, then, like with any homebrew, you need to wait at least a few days and up to a couple of weeks for your beer to ferment.
With a little more practice, I expect that I could use the Pico to make good beer -- maybe even great beer. But therein lies the problem. Buying a homebrew kit and making beer on your own, even if it's your first time, is cheaper, easier, and more satisfying than using the Pico.
Every member of the PicoBrew team I've talked with seems genuinely interested in listening to customers and improving the product. They clearly love the idea of empowering people to make their own beer at home. Right now, though, I don't recommend you buy the expensive and tedious Pico. It won't help you if you're a beginner, and you don't need it if you're an expert.
Getting to know Pico
The PicoBrew Pico is an $800 automatic beer making robot. You buy prepackaged sets of ingredients called Picopaks to use with it. The PicoPaks cost around $20 each -- more or less depending on what type of beer you order. Each packet makes around 5 liters of beer. You can pick from PicoBrew's growing selection of options meant to replicate a variety of beers from all sorts of breweries. You can also customize your own PicoPak using PicoBrew's new Freestyle program.
Once you have your PicoPak in hand, you essentially just need to put it into the Pico and hit start. The Pico recognizes the Pak and lets you customize the alcohol content and bitterness of the recipe. Then, the Pico whips up a batch of unfermented beer -- called wort -- on its own in a couple of hours. Pico connects to your Wi-Fi network so you can track your beer's progress as it cooks.
After you have a fresh batch of hot wort, you'll need to let it cool, then add the yeast that'll get fermentation going. The yeast comes in a small packet included with the PicoPak. Fermentation can take as much as a couple of weeks, and then you'll need to carbonate your beer with priming sugar or a small canister of CO2 -- both also included with the PicoPak.
All told, expect the process to take a couple weeks at least from when you push the start button to when you take your first sip. You can buy the Pico now for $800 from the PicoBrew website. It's also available at Williams Sonoma, Sur La Table and Bloomingdale's. Shipping's free in the continental US, but you can order the Pico with different plugs if you live overseas. The price is still the $800 US price, which converts to approximately £640 or AU$1,000.
To PicoBrew's credit, the process of actually cooking your beer is completely hands-off. All of the other steps, though simple in theory, proved tedious in practice.
The testing process
Though the main machine of the PicoBrew Pico is a single unit, it actually ships with all manner of nozzles, hoses, and kegs necessary to the brewing process. The Pico itself is a large, stainless cube. It's too big and industrial-looking to blend into most kitchens, so you'll probably want to find a space for it in your garage or basement. A plastic bin fills most of the main cavity -- that's where you put your PicoPak.
Above the cavity, a simple display helps you connect your Pico to Wi-Fi and guide you through the brewing process. Though the text on the display is helpful, I strongly recommend keeping the novella-sized instruction manual handy at least for your first couple of rounds of brewing with the Pico.
I spent over a month testing the Pico. In that time, I brewed: Annie's London Ale, a pale ale originally made by PicoBrew, and Buffalo Sweat, an oatmeal stout by Tallgrass Brewing. For all of the details on how the process went, check out my weekly progress report.
In short, just like with homebrewing, cleaning is a pain. I also don't like that the Pico instructs you to let you cool your wort overnight -- wort is very vulnerable to infection at this stage. And near the end of the progress report we tried the first batch of beer -- Annie's London Ale -- and it was terrible.
I made another beer, Buffalo Sweat, to round out my testing for this review. The Pico offers methods for speeding up the fermentation and carbonation steps of brewing, or doing the steps in the slower, more traditional fashion. We used the faster method on Annie's London Ale. With Buffalo Sweat, I used traditional carbonation and fermentation. I'd hoped that allowing time for these more traditional techniques would help make my second beer a success where my first failed.
I set up a blind taste for Buffalo Sweat between the Pico variety and the commercial beer from a can. The good news for Pico -- of the six participants, two mixed up which beer was which. Even better, those same two preferred the Pico variety of Buffalo Sweat over the canned version.
The bad news for Pico -- three of the six tasters thought the Pico variety was distinctly off-putting, calling it funky and sour. Those three were obviously able to pick which beer was which and strongly preferred the commercial variety.
I put myself through a similar blind trial, and picked out which beer was Pico's right away. Unlike Annie's London Ale, Buffalo Sweat was properly carbonated and smelled great. It wasn't noticeably thinner than the original version, but I did taste a distinct acidic flaw in the beer.
I talked with Annie Johnson, PicoBrew's Brewmaster in residence, after trying Buffalo Sweat to see if I could figure out what went wrong this time. I'd talked to her about my concerns earlier in the process as well.
Johnson suggested running off a little beer to see if the acidity would go away. She thought some dead yeast might have been accidentally transferred into the serving keg. I tried this step, and the acidity was reduced, but still present.
Other publications that have reviewed the Pico have successfully made good beer. I've also tried good beers supposedly made by the Pico at a couple of different industry trade shows. After a few weeks and a couple of earnest attempts, I've simply been unable to make good beer myself.
Who's Pico meant for?
I'll admit that I'm a much more seasoned beer drinker than I am a beer brewer. That said, I've had an easier time in my limited attempts at homebrewing than I have had with the Pico. So I can't say whether I'm at fault or the Pico's at fault for the bad beer I made, but I can say that it's not a machine fit for beginners -- it's tough to use and it's definitely not foolproof -- which somewhat defeats its purpose as an automated beer-making robot.
Experts at homebrewing will probably not be interested either, since they most likely own advanced equipment and don't need to pay for an $800 machine.
That leaves homebrewers of moderate experience interested in trying beers they might not have access to in their local supermarket. The Pico has some merit here. Over the course of my two calls with Johnson, she told me the brewers from both Tallgrass and Rogue -- another popular microbrewery -- made their own products using the Pico and were satisfied. That said, Johnson admitted that PicoPaks use different yeast from the brewers, as most microbreweries keep their proprietary yeast secretive.
Because the brewers at Tallgrass and Rogue were able to replicate their own products, and because the PicoBrew Pico really does automate an authentic beer brewing process, I do think it has some value if you're a beer lover in an area without access to a lot of good beer. Check out the variety of PicoPaks offered by PicoBrew. If you find yourself dying to try a couple, and you have some homebrewing know how, I wouldn't blame you for splurging on this $800 novelty.
The $20 PicoPaks aren't really saving you any money over buying bottles, though, and since it's not fit for beginners, I don't broadly recommend the PicoBrew Pico. I'm excited by the trend of bringing technology to homebrewers, and the Pico is certainly easier to use than PicoBrew's first machine -- the $2,000 Zymatic -- but the Pico still needs refining before it's ready for the masses.