PicoBrew Pico Review

In the most recent episode of Bad Voltage, I reviewed the PicoBrew Pico. Tune in to listen to the ensuing discussion and the rest of the show.

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Brewing beer is a complex and subtle mix of art and science. As a fan of both craft beer and technology, when I stumbled upon the Pico by PicoBrew I was intrigued. For those not familiar with the Pico, it’s a device that semi-automatically brews 5 liters of fresh craft beer at home in about 2 hours using grain and hop PicoPaks from dozens of breweries worldwide. From well known beers such as Dead Guy Ale from Rogue and Brew Free or Die from 21st Amendment, to niche beers from small local breweries scattered around the world that are unlikely to be available outside their direct locale, the selection is good and still growing rapidly. You’re also able to create your own beer from scratch via the Freestyle option that lets you choose a base style and then customize with around a dozen grain options, a half dozen hop varieties and the optional ability to dry hop.

The Pico guides you through the first few brewing steps over the course of roughly two hours, however like with any home brew, you need to wait between a few days and up to a couple of weeks for your beer to ferment and carbonate. I’ve heard it described as the Keurig of beer, but I don’t think that’s an apt characterization. Making beer with the Pico is somewhere between traditional home brewing and and a K-Cup type experience, which InBev claims to be working on incidentally. With that in mind, on to the actual device.

The Pico is a fairly large device, measuring 16″ x 12″ x 14″ and weighing in at 24 pounds. That may make it a difficult to accommodate for some. As the initial shipment comes with a PicoPak, a brewing keg, a dispensing keg, and quite a few accessories the delivery box is massive. Once you unpack everything initial setup is a breeze. Simply plug in the device, connect it to your wifi, and then associate it with your Pico account. The only thing left is the initial rinse, which is automated, and cleaning/sanitizing all the accessories and kegs. As with traditional home brewing, you better get used to cleaning and sanitizing as there is a lot of it involved. If you were expecting to hit a button, get beer, and be done let me allay you of that idea right now.

With everything gleaming and sanitary you’re ready for your first brew. The first part of the brewing process involves inserting the PicoPak into the main step filter. Each PicoPak is automatically recognized by the device and comes with a Hops Pak and a Grain Pak. From there you connect the brewing keg, which uses standard ball lock connectors, add some distilled water and start the process. For most recipes you can adjust the ABV (alcohol content) and IBU (bitterness), but nothing else. While the on-screen directions are usually clear, I recommend keeping the manual handy for the first couple batches. Roughly two very noisy hours later you have the smell of fresh bread in the air and brewed wort in your keg. You can track the progress of your brew, in real-time, online. Follow the cleaning and sanitizing instructions on the device and let the wort cool to the correct brewing temperature, which is noted on the Pak. From there you pitch your yeast, watch the airlock bubble for between a few days and a couple weeks, then rack the beer into either the serving keg or your kegerator system. While they offer a method to “fast ferment” your wort, I recommend sticking with the standard fermentation process. You can carbonate the beer with the priming sugar that comes with the PicoPak or force carbonate using the included adapter. You now have fresh homemade beer.

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How is that beer? I’ve brewed a few different styles from multiple breweries and the results have been mixed. My initial brew was a Buffalo Sweat Stout and it came out really good. In fact, some people that tried it didn’t believe I brewed it at home. On the other end of the spectrum, the Dead Guy Ale tasted off to the point of being almost undrinkable. As I brew more recipes from additional breweries I am curious to see which experience becomes the norm. Unfortunately I haven’t had a chance to try the Freestyle option yet, but I plan to very soon and will update with results when I do.

Note that new Pico devices also ship with a sous vide adapter. My Pico did not, but the company has stated they plan to ship the adapter to everyone eventually. Looking at the instructions, however, it’s much more complicated than a traditional sous vide. It’s pretty clear the company was committed to including the functionality because it was promised in their kickstarter, and they should be commended for this. It may be a decent way to test whether you like cooking sous vide, but if you’re serious about it I suspect you’ll want a proper setup sooner than later. I still use the Anova I reviewed in an previous episode and recommend it.

So, what’s the Bad Voltage verdict? At $799 the device is a fair bit more expensive than a traditional home brew setup. While it automates much of the process, there is still quite a bit of manual cleaning, sanitizing, and other work that must be done and the “beer in two hour” pitch is a little disingenuous. PicoPaks run between $19-$29, which translates to around $10-15 per growler of beer. It will be interesting to see how many breweries come on board and how consistent the end result is. So far the company has been very receptive to feedback and seem genuinely interested in listening to customers and improving the product, so I’m encouraged. PicoBrew deserves credit for making the brewing process simpler and removing some variables without making it much less authentic. I suspect if you really enjoy craft beer and live somewhere a good variety of it is difficult to procure, the device could be a compelling purchase. I also suspect many will consider it far too expensive, too complicated, and too inconsistent to justify the cost or effort involved. Note the company also makes a device called the Zymatic which is a true all-grain brewing appliance that is almost akin to a miniaturized commercial brewery. At $2,000 it’s a major investment but it also comes with the ability to sell PicoPaks in the BrewMarkepace, so may be an option for those looking to break into commercial brewing.

UPDATE: After recording the show I contacted PicoBrew with the following question: “If PicoBrew were to fail as a company, would the device be rendered useless? The fact that you cannot add your own ingredients to a pak would seem to indicate this is the case. Am I missing something? Thanks.”

They once again responded extremely quickly (under thirty minutes) with the following: “You are not missing anything and that is a quite valid concern. To alleviate this concern, we can promise two things:

1.  We’re not going anywhere.  We have a quite solid business plan and a quite large purse to keep us going for many years to come.
2.  If we were to go out of business, we would make sure our customers, those who trust and support us, are not screwed in our passing.  We would release all software surrounding our products and let the community build themselves a working server to support their appliances as well as release how to build your own Pak.”

–jeremy

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