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PicoBrew Zymatic review: Making great craft beer in a cloud-connected appliance

Jon Phillips | June 23, 2015
It doesn't make beer on demand, but the Zymatic does remove friction from home brewing by grabbing recipes online, and automating complex steps.

Overall, the user manual would benefit from much more detailed step-by-step instructions. It needs inline images directly linked to specific blocks of text, and highlighted call-outs--for instance, a "WARNING!" call-out that explains what to do if your keg begins foaming during cool-down. I would also have more confidence in the user manual if it didn't look like it was assembled at Staples.

The hardware would benefit from some refinement as well. Specifically, I'd like to see a full-fledged touchscreen display instead a barebones LED display that's navigated with a dial. The tiny LED makes menu navigation really wonky, and suggests a maker project, not a fully baked retail appliance. The whole experience feels vaguely beta, and lacks the level of panache we find in so many other smart-home appliances--like, say, Dropcam or the Nest thermostat.

Good-tasting (if not lovingly crafted) beer

I think experienced home brewers would be less confused by the PicoBrew's documentation than I: For example, they might intuitively know where to put the Irish Moss, and how to avoid the cool-down foam. But these are also the people who might take issue with what the Zymatic stands for.

Indeed, some hardcore craft brew enthusiasts might consider the Zymatic to be "cheating"--a high-tech shortcut for a time-honored process that's supposed to require skill, knowledge, and a bit of gut-it-out moxie. To yestertech purists, it's the sterile smartwatch to the spring-driven mechanical watch. It's the soulless electric motor to the hand-tuned carbureted engine.

But I don't harbor the same lofty ideals (at least not for beer brewing). Despite all its drawbacks--the price, the spotty instructions, the 20-pint production limit--I feel the Zymatic really does make home brewing much more accessible. Besides automating the brewing operations that require the most attention and specialized knowledge, the Zymatic's parts are small and can be cleaned in a dishwasher. And because the machine and its attached keg combine to form a closed system that's sanitized during the boil, the risk of contamination by wild yeast is significantly reduced. (Or so says PicoBrew.)

All of this appeals to me. I'm looking for ease-of-use and results, not the romance of cleaning pots or the "learning experience" of blowing batch after batch.

Then there's the beer itself. Having tasted a number of really bad home-brewed beers during the last 20 years, I was bracing myself for poor results. But the pale ale I drew from my finishing keg was surprisingly good. It had a great balance of sweet maltiness and bitter hops, and a thick foamy head. It also had kick-ass alcohol content, if my one-beer buzz was any indication.

Transporting the fermenting keg from home to office was a big mistake, as it kicked up the yeast and trub, making for a cloudy beer. But aside from that single penalty, the ale tasted pretty good as we got further and further into the batch. (I should note that PicoBrew's user manual advises not to disturb the fermenting keg before the beer is racked to the finishing keg. It's a mistake I won't make again!)

 

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