We love delicious craft beer, but it's tough to see the value in PicoBrew's pricey home-brewing machine.
Your appreciation of the PicoBrew Zymatic automated beer-making device will depend on your experience with and love for traditional home brewing methods. Newbies, methodical brewers looking to isolate variables in a recipe, and those with a dedicated brewing space (or expansive countertop real estate) will like the crowd-funded Zymatic most. Gadget-inclined home brewers might also find the Zymatic intriguing, but for anyone, the Zymatic's $1,999 price tag (which directly converts to about £1,350 and AU$2,580 before shipping and other charges) will mean you need more than a passing interest in this device to buy one.
I expect no shortage of traditional, kettle-and-bucket home brewers will take issue with the Zymatic -- for its price, if not also for the very idea of it. As Adam Watson, co-founder of Against the Grain brewery in Louisville, Ky., put it, the Zymatic "takes the soul out of brewing." If you find traditional brewing a soulful experience, you don't need me to tell you that the Zymatic probably isn't for you.
For those seriously in the market for a connected brewing device, I'd first wait to see how Zymatic competitor Brewie does when released. Based on my experience with the Zymatic, though, I like its data-logging function, and the fact that it streamlines some aspects of home brewing. I just can't ever see myself buying one at this price. I expect the majority of hobbyist home brewers without some very specific need to fill will feel the same.
A quick note on my personal beer-making experience outside of using the Zymatic: negligible. I've made one batch from a malt extract-based (as opposed to all-grain) kit on my stove top. It wasn't very good, and I'm sure that was 100 percent due to my inexperience. I'd like to try again, and I might do it sooner if I had the Zymatic, but I'm not committed enough to plunk down $1,999 for the privilege.
A key thing to understand about the PicoBrew Zymatic: it's not an instant beer machine. Experienced home brewers will already know this, but for anyone with dreams of craft beer flowing from the Zymatic like fizzy water from a SodaStream, that's not what this thing does. As with traditional home brewing, you still need to clean and sanitize all of your equipment yourself. You still need to chill the wort, add the yeast, ferment and carbonate yourself.
What the Zymatic does do is automate the initial phases of making beer, and feeds temperature and time data for each brewing session into your own personal brewing database hosted on the PicoBrew website. You can then use that data to analyze brewing conditions from run to run.
Here's the basic process of making beer with the Zymatic:
Once the Zymatic detects that the wort has cooled enough, it gives you a signal indicating it's safe to add the yeast (yeast will die in too high temps). The Zymatic's role is then complete. It's now up to you to add (aka pitch) your yeast, and put the keg away to ferment. Then you carbonate it (time varies by method), then you drink. You probably also want to clean the Zymatic if you intend to use it again.
The process is of course more involved than that. It starts on PicoBrew's website.
The site is the anchor for using the Zymatic, and PicoBrew requires registration to use the meatiest parts of it. You can't browse the beer recipes, forums or other resources you'll find there without logging in.
Recipes can come from two places, either the PicoBrew database of user-uploaded recipes (240 and counting as of this writing), or via your own recipe made with PicoBrew's online form. You don't have to share the latter to the PicoBrew database, but you do need to assign any recipe you want make to your profile for the Zymatic to use it.
The site is also where you will find PicoBrew's forum and support videos. Expect to spend at least some time with these. The printed directions that come with the Zymatic are incomplete, as are the directions that come with their packaged beer-making kits (sold separately). It was only after reading the online version of the Pico Pale Ale recipe kit, for example, that I understood I needed to put each of the four hop additions in the Zymatic's hop chambers in a specific order (yes, this was my first experience with multi-hop brewing).
Using the site may be unavoidable, but it works well enough. The forums are active with users and PicoBrew staff, and the general tone is helpful and enthusiastic. Experienced brewers might find some nitpicky issues with PicoBrew's recipe creation form, but overall the site is a relatively painless necessity for using the Zymatic.
The real fun, of course, comes in actually making the beer.
You get a lot of hardware and accessories when you purchase a Zymatic. Along with the unit itself, your $1,999 nets you the 5-gallon keg, a neoprene keg cozy (to help it maintain temperature), a line-cleaning brush, all the necessary tubing with quick-connect ends pre-installed, two silicon keg lids, two fermentation locks, a syringe to sample beer during brewing, a dishwasher tab, a packet of Irish moss, and a foam collapser and an anti-foam solution to (in theory) keep your beer from frothing over while you're brewing.
The highlight, of course, is the Zymatic itself. A 50-pound beast of a device, it has all the countertop appeal of a massive 1970s microwave oven. At 17 inches tall by 20.5 inches wide by 14 inches deep (43.2 by 52.1 by 35.6 cm), it will be a tough fit in many kitchens. Hook up a keg to it and the Zymatic all of a sudden has an awkward attachment that also needs a home for the 4 hours or so it takes to get through a brewing cycle. Unless you have a dedicated beer-making space at home, expect to have to move this thing around a lot between uses.
Basic hardware setup is straightforward, and the directions walk you through it well enough. Put the Zymatic on a countertop, plug in the power cord, connect it to the Internet via either Wi-Fi or an Ethernet connection, and log in with your account via the small LCD on the unit.
The plastic hopper comes with two fine mesh screens, one each for the mash chamber (where the grain goes) and the other across the bottom of all four hop chambers. A clear plastic lid sits on top of it all, and you'll know you've seated the hopper properly inside the Zymatic once you feel it grab and slide onto the drain tube on the back interior wall.
On the side of the unit, you'll find the in-flow and out-flow connections, and it's here where you attach the tubing to the keg. You can figure out which is which easily enough via the manual, but this is an obvious place where PicoBrew could have improved usability by labeling the unit itself.
That lack of hand-holding is a common experience when using the Zymatic. It's not aimed at the newbie who's suddenly decided to throw a bunch of money at a new home-brewing hobby. An experienced brewer will know that you need to sanitize everything or what multi-step mashing means, but there's a lot for inexperienced brewers to have to wade through to become confident they're doing every thing correctly. The PicoBrew website is the resource to use here, and between the videos, the manual, the forums and the product FAQ, the information you want to find is usually there -- it can just be hard to track down.
Once you have the hardware set up, both your recipe and its ingredients loaded into the machine and the right amount of water in the keg, you're ready to start making beer. Select "start brewing," and the Zymatic then makes its way through the various brewing steps outlined in the recipe.
Water flows into the grain via a single, mechanized spout on the top of the Zymatic's interior chamber. Once your water hits temperature, it sprays into the grain compartment, then it moves to each hop chamber at timed intervals based on the recipe. It's possible to stop the process midway and restart again without losing your batch. It won't transmit temperature data to your online brew-session log, but the graph does pick up the temperature data and continue logging if your signal drops off and then comes back up again during a brew.
I made three different beers on the Zymatic. PicoBrew sent me an ingredient kit for its Pico Pale Ale, a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale copycat. I also made a chipotle porter, and with Watson's help, we designed a clone recipe of Against the Grain's popular Citra Ass Down IPA.
Only the porter came out tasting like something you'd actually want to drink. The other two were semi-drinkable, but clearly impacted by some kind of bacteria somewhere along the way given their off-flavors. The porter was plenty chocolatey, rich and spicy, at least at the start of a sip. A thin finish was the only noticeable flaw, although perhaps also an indicator of a design issue with the Zymatic.
I involved Watson in this review to get a professional brewer to weigh in (Against the Grain was recently named one of 2014's top 100 breweries in the world by RateBeer.com). We (read: he, I mostly just transcribed) developed the recipe to fit into PicoBrew's online form, and then he graciously came by the office to load the ingredients into the Zymatic and watch as the machine made his beer.
I'd describe Watson's reaction to the Zymatic as skeptical, but open-minded enough to play along. He was more generous than the owner of a local home-brew store who, while he never actually saw the device in person, was opposed to the very concept of it.
One concern Watson raised was that the water comes into the grain from a single point, and there's no agitation inside the grain bed to mix things around. He felt that a potential risk of this design was that the water might not extract as much flavor from the grain as it would if you were stirring the mixture around on a stove top. The result could be watery beer.
I noticed no particular dry or clumpy spots that might indicate this when I cleaned the grain bed after each of our three test brews, but all three beers lacked a certain fullness to them, most noticeably the porter.
One other issue I ran into was foaming during the chilling process. I had the foam trap installed on the keg, with plenty of anti-foam applied to the included felt ring. It was like trying to use a sponge to stop a firehose.
My best guess as to what was happening is that while the Zymatic was helping cool the wort by pumping it through the keg while it sat in its ice bath, toward the "drain" phase of this cycle it seemed to want to extract every last drop of wort from the hopper, mostly by just pumping air into the keg for 10 minutes. I kept the keg connected for that entire time to see if the machine would ever determine for itself that it didn't need to pump any more. It never stopped, so that 10-minute timer is indeed fixed. Removing it as soon as the wort hits safe pitching temperature is the best bet, but even then expect some foam. PicoBrew has a video with suggestions to minimize foam, but you'll need to log in to the site to watch it.
As for the off-flavors in the two ales, that's a sanitization issue, not the fault of the Zymatic itself. I really did try to be as thorough as possible in sanitizing everything, and probably even over-cleaned the Zymatic before each test batch using its pre-programmed rinse and cleaning cycles. We detected no off-flavors in the porter. It's possible the strong chocolate and chipotle flavors masked any that were present, but either way, when I offered the office the chance to take any of our three beers home in growlers, that's the only one anyone went for.
The off flavors in our Citra Ass Down clone were particularly disappointing, though. Watson and his colleagues at Against the Grain graciously accommodated us for an afternoon at their brand new brewing facility in Louisville in order to conduct a blind taste test of the Zymatic version versus the real deal in both bottle and keg variants. It's a good thing it was blind, because you could tell instantly by sight which one was ours. Our panel of four taste testers also went four-for-four in their ability to pick out the Zymatic version by taste. They did not speak highly of it.
A final, but important note. Cleaning the Zymatic is actually relatively simple. You can throw the entire hopper, the screens, the plastic lid, and the hop chambers into the dishwasher. The aforementioned automated cleaning and rinse cycles help you keep the internal piping clean, but there are a few other parts, like the lines to the keg and the filter that you'll need to clean manually. You, of course, also need to clean and sanitize the keg itself, as well as the other components that come in contact with the beer. And you'll need to buy sanitizer separately.
Removing cost from the equation, I can say that I had fun making beer with the Zymatic. I learned a lot, which always makes things more fun for me, and I also appreciated the fact that I could just go out and buy ingredients, dump them into the hopper, and the machine handled bring the water to temperature, timing the distribution of various ingredients, and even assisted in cooling the wort. If I was better at sanitizing, I might even have enjoyed the end result.
The problem, of course, is that cost is a huge factor with the Zymatic. You could spend a tenth of this amount on traditional equipment and have what some might consider a fancy home-brewing setup. The Zymatic also doesn't automate enough of the brewing process to eliminate a worthwhile amount of the hassle that comes with making beer (and yes, many people would call that the fun).
As a craft beer enthusiast and fledgling home brewer, I'm intrigued by the idea of a machine like this, and I'm all for anything that inspires creativity and enthusiasm around beer-making. Some beer makers may see opportunity in the data tracking and the potential for consistency that comes with the Zymatic. I would encourage even those users to wait for the Brewie to launch before laying down so much money for the Zymatic. That unit will be no less expensive than the Zymatic when it ships in August 2015, but you'd be wise to understand all of your options before putting such a major investment into making craft beer at home.