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PicoBrew Zymatic review: The benefits of this automated home-brewer are a little cloudy for the price

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MSRP: $1,999.00
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The Good The PicoBrew Zymatic automates the initial steps in home brewing and provides convenient online brew data tracking to help analyze your beer from batch to batch.

The Bad The $2,000 price tag makes this prohibitively expensive for all but the most dedicated home brewer, and, for better or for worse, it still leaves you with plenty of hands-on work to make a beer.

The Bottom Line Unless you have a very specific need for the data tracking or automation provided by the PicoBrew Zymatic, you will likely see very limited benefit for the cost of this machine over traditional home-brewing equipment.

Visit manufacturer site for details.

6.8 Overall

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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.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

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.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

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:

  1. Create a profile on PicoBrew's website and assign beer recipes to it from the PicoBrew database (or make your own recipe).
  2. Sync your Zymatic with your profile to download whatever recipes you want to make.
  3. Load the Zymatic's plastic hopper with the prescribed grain and hops, and fill the included 5-gallon Cornelius keg with the right amount of water.
  4. Connect the keg to the Zymatic.
  5. Select your recipe on the Zymatic, then hit "start brewing."
  6. After the initial brew process is done, use the Zymatic to circulate your beer-to-be (now called wort) through your preferred chilling mechanism.

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.

Log in to make beer

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.

PicoBrew's recipe library Rich Brown/CNET

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.

What's in the box?

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.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

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.

Slide the hopper onto the drain pipe Tyler Lizenby/CNET

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.

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