Review: PicoBrew, the Countertop Home Brewing Appliance
As anyone who’s ever attempted to brew their own batch of beer can tell you, homebrewing is not exactly an easy process. It requires a ton of space, meticulously sanitized equipment, just the right amount of grain, hops, and yeast in just the right ratios, and a whole lot of patience. A new countertop appliance called the PicoBrew aims to take the stress and guesswork out of the homebrewing process, and while it’s not perfect, this amazing piece of technology helps you create home-brewed beer that you can definitely be proud of.
We were sent a Pico C, which is the best model for beginners (the Pico Pro and Zymatic are pricier and are for more experienced home brewers), and brewed two batches of beer at home with help from detailed instructions. It seemed quite intimidating at first, but the brewing process itself was easier than I’d imagined. No device will ever brew beer like a cup of coffee (fermentation will never be instantaneous), but this contraption is about as technologically advanced as homebrewing gets.
Here’s how it works: From the website, you can take your pick from nearly 200 PicoPaks, which can best be described as Keurig K-Cups for beer. These are large packs full of grains and hops perfectly measured and calibrated by brewmaster Annie Johnson to turn out facsimiles of top brews from 170 craft breweries, many of which are regional (like Seattle’s Lucky Envelope, San Francisco’s 21st Amendment, Oregon’s Rogue Ales, and Boise’s Barbarian); you can also custom-design your own PicoPak through the website, or choose from beers created in-house or by respected home brewers.
Once ready to brew, you add a few liters of water to the reservoir to run a rinse cycle, insert your PicoPak (the machine will recognize the beer and brew it at the ideal temperature and time for it), connect the machine’s two hoses to the brew keg, add some more water to the reservoir and keg, and set the machine to brew. After a couple hours the (rather loud) mashing process is complete, so you detach the hoses from the keg and replace them with a fermentation seal and let the keg of unfermented beer (called wort) cool overnight. Then you open up the keg, give it a stir, sprinkle on the yeast packet included in the PicoPak, close it back up, and let it rest in a cool place to ferment. After a night in the fridge to crash the yeast, the keg is hooked back up the machine and the beer is transferred into a serving keg (or racked into 13 12-ounce bottles), then carbonated using either sugar or a force-carbonation kit sold separately. Once carbonated and chilled, your five liters of beer are ready to drink, right out of the keg.
It’s a pretty incredible process, and once you get the hang of it it’s essentially foolproof. Our first brew, Lucky Envelope’s Helles Lager, had a couple hiccups, though. One, when pouring water into the reservoir some spilled and leaked into the electronics, rendering the machine unusable until after it dried overnight (customer support was very helpful in reassuring me that despite my panic, it wasn’t broken). And two, the instructions don’t reinforce how important it is to let the wort completely cool to around 65 degrees before adding the yeast, so the finished product had some off flavors.
My only other quibble (backed up by a friend who’s an award-winning homebrewer) is the fact that “fast fermentation” of only a few days at temperatures between 75 and 85 degrees (as indicated by a handy strip on the fermentation keg) is strongly recommended; what’s never mentioned is that each type of beer has its own “comfort zone” for fermentation, usually around 10-14 days at about 65 degrees. Fermenting a beer hot and fast can result in those aforementioned off-flavors like diacetyl (which tastes like buttered popcorn), esters (banana), and fusel alcohol (nail polish remover). Homebrewers take fermentation temperature very seriously — some only brew in the winter or invest in a temperature-controlled fermentation chamber — so it was surprising to see the Pico folks greenlighting 85-degree fermentation without any caveats. After doing a fair amount of research online and consulting with homebrewer friends, we fermented our second brew, Tallgrass’ Buffalo Sweat oatmeal cream stout, for two weeks at around 65 degrees, and it turned out just about perfect. The comment section on each PicoPak’s page usually has a fair amount of reviews and notes about the process, so I advise you check that out before starting your brew.
As you might have guessed, none of this comes cheap. The PicoBrew C itself costs $499 (currently on sale for $449), and PicoPaks range in price from $18.99 to $29.99; do the math and each 12-ounce beer will cost you about $1.75 or so. This is a pretty serious investment, so make sure you’re going to make full use of it before purchasing or else it’s going to end up an expensive waste of counter space (though thankfully, it can also double as a sous vide machine, a very nice added perk.).
Brewing your own beer is incredibly cool, and as I’ve never home-brewed the traditional way, I can’t tell you whether getting help from a machine lessens the sense of accomplishment when you take that first sip; I have a feeling it might, but that’s not really important. What is important is that you’re now a certified home brewer, and that the PicoBrew did just about all of the heavy lifting for you.
The PicoBrew reviewed in this article was supplied to the writer at no cost.