Last week, I received a tempting invitation: Take a day trip to Seattle, brew a batch of beer, and taste a handful of beer samples. I have no brewing experience, but I could have easily taken entrepreneur Bill Mitchell up on his proposal, if not for the logistical complications of making it to Seattle from San Francisco on short notice.
Mitchell, a former executive at Microsoft, is the co-creator of the PicoBrew Zymatic--an automatic beer brewing appliance that can create an endless stream of high-quality beers. Think of it as the breadmaker for brewing.
The appliance is supposed to be eminently usable in the hands of beginners. But it's even better for brewing experts. "A pro can do targeted test batches," says Mitchell, who created the PicoBrew brand with his brother and another former Microsoft executive. "A beginner can produce beer using someone else's recipes, because it takes talent to come up with great recipes. Both parties can benefit from the tool."
Instead of a visit, Mitchell and I settled on a Skype tour, where I got to see the Zymatic in action (and watch as beer hovered tantalizingly in front of my screen). The device, which is made with an open-source controller, connects to the Internet, downloads recipes, and can tweak brewing cycles. Users simply fill a small keg with water, attach the Zymatic's hoses to the keg post, put grains in the device's container (called a "step filter"), put hops in the designated hops cages, select a recipe, and wait.
Less than four hours later, unfermented beer, known as wort, will emerge. Chill the wort, add yeast, seal the keg--and ready-to-drink beer will emerge approximately five days later.
Mitchell and his brother Jim, who has a background in physics and food chemistry, are both longtime home brewers. "There was a lot of stuff we realized we could improve, which involved inventing new food processing techniques and using science to automate the drudgery portions," he explains. "We wanted to get rid of the parts of brewing that aren't fun, and amp up the parts that we find most interesting."
The frustration of brewing multiple batches of the same beer with lots of variability--gone. The annoying task of cleaning giant pots at the end of the brewing process--also gone. Instead, the Zymatic features precise temperature controls, automation, and robotics. After more than 350 batches of test beer, Mitchell claims that "nobody has been disappointed."
During our tour, Mitchell lists some of the many beers his team has created at PicoBrew's 4,000 square foot shop, lab, and office space. There's a brown ale in the spirit of Dogfish Head's brown, a milk stout, an imperial stout, and a Pliny the Elder clone, among others.
To create these clones, PicoBrew took the 23 major styles of beer, and picked one favorite in each category to be designated as a "reference beer." In blind taste tests, drinkers have at least a 50% preference for reference beers created with the Zymatic, according to Mitchell.
There is clearly a big potential market for the Zymatic. At the time of writing, they've raised $346,444 on Kickstarter so far from eager brewers, despite the $1,599 donation level to get in on the second production run, which is still available.
Mitchell expects the Zymatic to be available commercially in summer 2014 for $1,999 and up.