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.