Brewing beer is a complex mix of art and science. To make a typical pilsner, for example, barley is malted, milled, then steeped in hot water to create wort, a liquid that smells like the perfect breakfast. Hops are added for bitterness and flavor, then yeast to create complexity and, of course, make alcohol. Carbonation comes from forcing CO2 into the mix, or, with time, it can carbonate naturally, spurred along by feeding extra sugar to the yeast.
Go to a brewery or try it at home and you’ll learn there’s a lot of time and process: heating, cooling, filtering, maturing. There is also cleaning—profound amounts of cleaning.
The brand new Pico from PicoBrew is an $800 home appliance that offers a Keurig-style approach to brewing suds. You pop a prefab “PicoPak” into the machine and make beers from microbreweries all over the country and around the world, along with Pico’s own blends, all right on your countertop. Customers can, say, order PicoPaks to turn out an Abita Turbodog from Louisiana, a wheat beer like Harlem Brewing Company’s Renaissance Wit, or A Little Dinghy Blonde from the Spinnaker Bay Brewery right up the street from my Seattle apartment.
The Pico features impressive technology. Those PicoPaks—sealed white paperboard boxes containing brewing ingredients—are recognized by the machine upon insertion, and each one is treated differently depending on what it is. That creation of wort is an automated and tailored to the individual beer. If you’re an avid fan of regional microbreweries, it’s like having the ability to tap a keg 3,000 miles away. Breweries that partner with PicoBrew can connect with faraway fans that they might not be able to reach otherwise.
To qualify, you will need to tick off as many of the following boxes as possible:
- Be a beer fanatic
- Live in a remote area with no microbreweries or selection of good beer nearby
- Have $800 to blow on a beer machine
- Be fairly uninterested in the ins and outs of making beer
- Not mind waiting a week or more for the beer to be ready to drink
- Have a man cave or similar secluded area for brewing
- Own a reverse osmosis machine (preferably)
- Enjoy cleaning
When I first fired up the machine, I thought of how cool it would be to quaff a beer poured from the keg that night. After all, PicoBrew’s video says it “Brews in 2 hours,” which is a definition of “brewing” that excludes things like yeast, carbonation and, importantly, beer at the end of those two hours.
There’s certainly a moment where you hit a button and the machine starts whirring and the display reads “PREPARING TO BREW,” but it’s the kind of thing that will leave you much less frustrated if you read through the manual once before you take anything else out of the packaging. (I botched my first batch for not reading closely enough. My fault.) It turns out that, depending on the beer you’re making and the process you choose, it takes a lot longer than that.
In that spirit, since different beers have different requirements, I wished that each PicoPak came with a scroll-shaped flow chart to illustrate the time involved in each step and the materials—both included and not included—that you’ll need. I had to make a couple of last-minute grocery store runs: once for distilled water for brewing and again, later in the same brewing cycle, for hydrogen peroxide to clean out a serving keg.
I brought in my friend Dave to help because he’s a user experience researcher by day and homebrewer and beer lover the rest of the time. Together, we worked through the entire brewing process methodically.
The Pico is a large appliance (easily more than twice the size of any other appliance in my kitchen) where you put the PicoPak, along with a sidecar pack of hops. The packs are compostable and look like they’re from Aunt Beru’s kitchen in Star Wars. The Pico heats distilled water or water that’s been run through a reverse osmosis process, and runs it through the packs creating the wort, which it transfers it to a “brewing keg” that sits on the counter next to the Pico. The wort cools overnight in the keg, then gets a sprinkling of yeast which, depending on which beer you’re working with, the method used, the ambient temperature, and if the beer being made requires dry hop packets, means you’ll need to wait several days if not a couple weeks before you have something to drink.
Dave and I had planned on playing cribbage and eating lunch while the Pico did its thing, but once we hit the “Brew” button and the machine got cranked up, the volume was somewhere between that of a fish tank pump and an air compressor.
“It’s like living near the airport,” Dave said on our way up to play cards on the roof.
“How about doing it nowhere?” my wife would ask, echoing a famous New Yorker cartoon, when I went to make a batch a few days later. “Would nowhere work?”
Up on the roof, I asked Dave if he’d keep a Pico in his kitchen.
“I would,” he said, “but I’d be asked to move it.”
Over lunch we did some back-of-napkin math to figure out the economics of a PicoPak, and found the cost by volume between microbrew and Pico beer are roughly competitive. You end up with about a gallon and a half of beer from every PicoPak, which costs between $20-30, plus, let’s say, $3 to $5 or so for the distilled water and cleaning supplies each batch needs. A growler is half a gallon, so that’s around $10-15 per growler for the Pico, compared to going to a Seattle brewery where growlers go for $8-15.
“Real homebrew math is harder,” Dave joked. “Those are five-gallon batches.”
“Five gallons of beer doesn’t seem like a problem,” I said.
“It’s not,” he confirmed.
I called Darren McKee at Seattle’s Sound Homebrew Supply who helped me compare the whole PicoBrew setup versus what you’d need for homebrewing. He told me that a high-end five-gallon homebrew setup costs about $500, and grain kits for individual beers cost $35-50. So that’s up to five clams per growler, but it’s homebrewing, so a more hands-on process.
Dave went home beer-less and I let the brewing keg we’d been working with cool overnight then, the following day, added a yeast packet to the wort. Once the yeast had worked its magic, I used the Pico to transfer beer from the burly brewing keg to a flimsy serving keg, a process called racking. I pushed a CO2 cartridge connected to a regulator valve into the top, pressurized the serving keg and … was only 36 hours from drinking a beer.
Neat freaks might get particularly excited here. I learned as I brewed that every step of the path involves cleaning, some of it extensive. You’ll also need large quantities of hydrogen peroxide, powdered dish detergent, and a 17-millimeter wrench. If you’re like me, you’ll need to run to the store or order all of these things to keep the ball rolling. You’ll have a host of bits and bobs like little O-rings, and conical springs to keep track of and clean. (Tucking a few extras in the box would be a welcome addition.) The furnished cleaning implements for these is, of all things, a pair of oversized pipe cleaners; they’re fine when you’re scrubbing out the interior of a keg post, but near-comical in their uselessness while trying to clean the inside of either of the kegs.
Days later, once it was all done, it was still exciting to try the beer. After my user error with the first batch, a keg of Lucky Envelope Brewing’s Mosaic IPA came out tasting fantastic, with that great fresh-beer flavor, and a surprisingly lovely texture. I also made Pico Pils, the company’s in-house pilsner which turned out mysteriously cloudy but tasty. A batch of Harlem Brewing Company’s wheat beer came out well, though a little flat, for the first two thirds of the keg, but the bottom third was way too cloudy and smelled like it would give me a headache, so I dumped it.
The breweries provide their recipes to PicoBrew, which figures out how to make it work with the Pico, but if I owned Harlem Brewing Company, I’d want to protect my brand more carefully; this is clearly not what they’re serving on 125th Street.
So I enjoyed the beer, but I struggled with the idea that despite being integral to the beer-making process, I hadn’t learned a thing about brewing. Saying “I made homebrew” with beer from the Pico made me feel like a bit of a faker.
There is clearly a lot of thought that went into making the Pico work and despite my misgivings, it’s an impressive machine—it makes beer! For the right, deep-pocketed person with most of those criteria listed above, it might be nice to try microbrews that they couldn’t get their hands on otherwise, but considering the effort you need to make, why not go all the way and try homebrewing? Or, if you have consistent, reasonably easy access to whatever it is that you consider to be decent beer, pick up a six-pack at the grocery store or go support your favorite local brewery.