Sometimes I especially love my job. For the past few weeks, Ive been brewing beer then drinking it. No, really. Testing PicoBrews latest automated brewing product, the Pico, is hard work.
In a matter of 10 days, I turned three gallons of water into a delicious, aromatic IPA without having to touch a stove or mess with any fancy brewing equipment.
In five days I turned water into a stout, and right now I have a saison fermenting away which should be ready toward the end of next week.
Looking at the amount of work I put into making said beers, when compared to the how I normally brew beer, I cant help but feel like I cheated the system somehow.
The token reference when discussing the small robotic brewer is to draw a parallel between Pico and a Keurig and rightfully so. Both devices have a water reservoir, use steam as a heating method, and take packs (or pods) with prepackaged ingredients to provide a consistent, drinkable product with the push a button.
At $799, the Pico isnt an impulse buy. Its a product thats well-designed, with its creators taking into account things like the water profile of where a typical beer is typically brewed, and streamlining the entire brewing process into just a few minutes of work.
For the same price as a smartphone, you get the Pico unit itself. A small ball lock keg is used during brewing and to ferment the beer. Another, rather cute serving keg is also included, along with all of the necessary attachments, cleaning tools, and accessories.
The Pico itself is about double the size of a Keurig machine, taking up very little counter space, and it can easily fit inside a cabinet or closet when not in use.
A typical brew session
Initial setup requires creating a PicoBrew account, linking the unit to your account, and then connecting it to Wi-Fi.
Ive been brewing at home for three years now, with a normal brew day taking roughly seven hours from start to finish. Between prepping, cleaning, brewing, and then cleaning some more, theres never a dull moment during that time.
With Pico, you can complete a single batch of beer in about 3 hours.
With Pico, you can complete a single batch of beer in about three hours. Only, instead of having to babysit the process, after the initial rinse that takes about 10 minutes to complete, you can leave.
Pico uses prepackaged PicoPacks, each one with an RFID chip on the top of it so the machine can identify it and download the proper steps and info from PicoBrews catalog.
Once you have rinsed the machine and filled the keg and reservoir with water, you place a PicoPack into a plastic tub along with another container that holds the hop additions for bettering, flavor, and aroma.
The machine recognizes the pack, you press the button, and away the brew goes. A countdown timer is displayed on the screen, along with the current step of the brew process the machine is on.
If you dont have time to sit and wait for the process to finish, you dont have to. You can leave the house, go to bed, or put on headphones and drink your last batch of beer.
Outside of adjusting the bitterness and alcohol percentage slightly up or down, you have no control over the recipe.
You are walked through the entire brew process, from pre-cleaning, brewing, to post-brew clean up, fermentation, and carbonation through the included instruction manual.
I wouldnt have figured out the entire process without the book. But there are steps along the way that are worded in a way that caused me to read, re-read, and read again before I guessed what was required.
For some steps, such as rinsing out after a brew session, I found the instructions displayed on the Picos screen to be much more concise and easier to follow than the book.
Fermentation is all about patience
PicoBrew has come up with a way to speed up fermentation through a combination of high pressure and high temperatures. In most cases, when you pitch yeast into wort (the term used for unfermented beer), you want to keep the temperature under 70 degrees.
With PicoBrews fast fermentation, you keep the fermentation keg in a room thats ideally between 75 and 84 degrees. The end result is saving yourself a few days of waiting while the yeast turns the sugary solution inside into beer full of alcohol.
The first batch of beer I brewed, I fast fermented. It was done in four days. The second back I brewed, I used a standard air lock and it fermented in a week.
As tempting as it is to speed up this process, this step is where beer can go bad in a hurry. For those with a Pico, take a few extra days and let nature do its thing.
Serving the beer
The 1.25 gallon serving keg is where you carbonate the beer, either with the included CO2 regulator and BB gun-like cartridges or using sugar.
The former happens in as little as 36 hours in your fridge, with the latter taking up to two weeks depending on room temperature.
Once the beer is carbonated, you leave it in this same container, apply the removable label, and begin serving.
To pour, you open a small adapter that goes into the top of the serving keg to allow airflow and then pull out the tap and turn it to the left. It pours, you drink, everyone is happy. As long as the keg is empty within a day or two, that is.
Outside of a bacterial infection, oxygen is one of beers biggest enemies. And each time you open the top of the keg to pour another beer, the empty space created is filled with oxygen.
Over time, this is going to have an impact on the flavor of the beer. Its just want happens.
Theres just over 13 standard 12-ounce beers in a single keg, so dont try to be a hero and drink it all one night. Invite some friends over when youre ready to tap it and have a party.
But, how does it taste?
Like beer, of course. Ive had the PicoBrew long enough to taste two of the three batches I brewed on it, and both tasted more or less fine. A few of my friends who have finely tuned pallets for off-flavors in beer tried the Half Squeezed IPA. Everyone agreed it was a drinkable beer, but also came to a consensus that there was some sort of off-flavor.
I just tried the Buffalo Sweat stout a few minutes ago as it approaches full carbonation, and found it to have that same off flavor.
In other words, unless youre a beer snob who knows what flavors like esters and DMS add to a beer, you have nothing to worry about.
Sit back, relax, drink your beer.
Who is this for?
Ive gone back and forth trying to decide who the Pico is made for. Enthusiasts will find it too limiting, lacking finer controls and the ability stir in the grain, drop hops into a boil, and take readings every step of the way.
PicoBrew plans on allowing users to create custom PicoPacks by the end of the year, giving back some of that control.
It’s a dead simple machine to use and maintain, and it produces decent beer.
The standard home brew kit for someone who owns none of the equipment runs right around $200, maybe $300 depending on how fancy you want to get. Each time you brew, you are rewarded with 5 gallons of beer for $30-$50.
Pico is $800, and PicoPacks are priced between $20-$30 for 1.25 gallons of beer.
Its obviously the more expensive way to go if you want to get into brewing your own beer. Granted, in exchange for your money your time commitment isnt nearly as much.
I can see someone who wants to brew beer at home, without a ton of space required by traditional brew equipment, and lacking the time to commit to spending nearly an entire day brewing thoroughly enjoying the Pico.
Its a dead simple machine to use and maintain, and it produces decent beer.
Takes all the guess work out of home brewing A lot of recipes available Will open up to custom recipes soon
Its a big investment Instruction book is confusing at times Beer is good, but not great
The Bottom Line
For someone who doesnt have the time or space to dive into homebrewing, the PicoBrew Pico is a respectable compromise. Although, its pricey.