Every time I told someone I was testing the PicoBrew Zymatic, a countertop appliance that simplifies beer brewing much like a bread machine simplifies baking, I heard a variation of the following question: "So you basically dump in a bunch of ingredients, push a button, and then tap your beer, right?"
Oh, if it were only that simple.
The Zymatic is not like an espresso machine or Sodastream for beer, so if you're looking for instant gratification (let alone an instant buzz), just buy a six-pack instead. Beer brewing is typically a one- to three-week operation that involves big pots and buckets, precision temperature control, and strict respect for sanitization and other best practices. The Zymatic streamlines much of this rigmarole, but it's not a miracle worker, so you'll still need to wait quite a while for your beer.
Nonetheless, based on everything I learned during my first-ever beer-brewing experience, the Zymatic definitely eliminates much of the friction of traditional home brewing. The machine downloads recipes from the cloud, and uses a computer-driven workflow to execute many of the complex brewing steps that novices like myself are prone to botch.
To this extent, the Zymatic is like a bread-making machine--insomuch beer is sort of like liquid bread, and making bread can be a total pain in the ass as well.
Using the Zymatic, I was able to prepare my wort, the essential liquid ingredient from which all beer is brewed, in just a few hours. Despite oftentimes vague documentation, the process was certainly easier than backyard brewing, and the resulting ale, which my friends and I drank some 11 days later, tasted surprisingly good. The first few pints from my keg received middling reviews, but by the time we pulled the fifth or sixth pint, my brew tasted like a perfectly respectable commercial pale ale (albeit a bit cloudy)
And you know what? It had better taste good. The machine--which borrows its name from zymurgy, the branch of science that focuses on fermentation--costs a whopping $2,000.
The messy whys and hows of home brewing
If you want to see a step-by-step breakdown of exactly how I made my first batch of beer, please watch the video at the top of this article. But for now, I'll just explain the basics of how PicoBrew's Zymatic operates--and how it simplifies some of the tasks that scare newbies away from home brewing.
In a traditional home brewing set-up, you begin making your wort by "mashing" the grain: You basically steep malted barley in hot water within a very specific temperature range, converting the grain's starches into sugars (which will later be converted into alcohol via the addition of yeast). Some beer recipes require multiple mashing stages, with each stage steeping at a different temperature for a different length of time. See? It's already getting complicated. Better grab a thermometer and timer.
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