If you’re like me, the idea of making beer has always been an intriguing one, but for various reasons -- the mess, no time to learn, possible marital discord -- you’ve never tried it.
That’s why when I saw the Kickstarter campaign for the Pico, an appliance that uses technology to simplify the process of home beer brewing, I backed it immediately.
The Pico is made by a company called PicoBrew, a startup founded by a couple of Microsoft expats. I’d known of PicoBrew because they had made a home brewing device a few years before the Pico called the PicoBrew Zymatic, a product which I had written about for Forbes. The Zymatic, which I called “a beer brewing kitchen appliance” in my Forbes piece, did automate many of the steps of home beer brewing, but in retrospect is still more targeted at professionals, both in price ($2500 vs. $799 for the Pico) and in complexity compared to the company’s second generation brewing appliance.
The main reason the Pico is less complex than the Zymatic is it utilizes a “pod” system for its grains and hops called PicoPaks. PicoPaks, which run for about $20 and are available through the PicoBrew website, allow you to pick a brew using a recipe from well-known craft brewers such as Rogue (Dead Guy’s Ale) or Populux (Cinderblock) and make it at home. All the necessary grains and hops are included and premixed in the PicoPaks, ready to pop into your Pico for brewing.
That was the promise at least, and I was willing to gamble a little money to see if I could finally realize my dream of home brewing.
I received an email notification in August that my Pico was ready, just under a year after I had backed the Pico on Kickstarter. I live in the Seattle area, the same city as PicoBrew, so I drove to the company’s headquarters by the University of Washington and picked up my Pico. A couple hours later, I was home and ready to unbox my Pico.
The standard Picobrew Pico unit comes with the following:
- Pico brewing unit
- Accessory box -- the small accessories needed for brewing with the Pico
- PicoPak box -- the brew “pods” that include a grain and hops pak as well as some yeast and sugar for post-brew.
- Brew keg -- the keg you use for brewing and fermenting the beer
- Serving keg -- the keg where you put the fermented beer, carbonate it and serve it
The Set Up
Before you make beer, you need to do a couple of things. First, you need to find a place to brew. The Pico’s size footprint is similar to that of an espresso machine, so it fits easily on a kitchen counter top. You also need room for the brew keg as that’s where the wort -- the brewed concoction before it ferments and has carbonation -- will go.
I decided to brew my first beer in an area adjacent to the kitchen on top of a small stand-alone liquor cabinet. You can see the set up below:
Once I had the Pico and brew keg set up, I turned on the Pico and connected to my Wi-Fi network. This took all of three minutes.
I then performed the first rinse, the process where you run tap water through the Pico to make sure everything is clean for an initial brew. This process, like the post-brew rinse, is a menu option. Below is a video of my Pico running the initial rinse cycle (this will also give you an idea of the noise level of the Pico):
Once you’ve set up your Pico, rinsed it, you’re ready to brew some beer. One thing you will need for your brew is distilled water. I found that the 2.5-gallon containers (the kind with the small little pour taps) are a perfect size, as you need about 2 gallons of distilled water for a full brew.
Next, you’ll want to unbox your PicoPak. The PicoPak comes with the grains, hops, a package of yeast, a packet of sugar (if you want to carbonate naturally), and a CO2 cartridge if you want to force carbonate (which is what I did, which I will explain later).
Below is a picture of my B-52 Blonde Pico GrainPak, HopPak, yeast and sugar packages.
Once you have the GrainPak and Hops Pak out of the box, you place them into the step filter, the large see-through filter that slides into the Pico. Then you fill the brew keg with distilled water, connect the brew keg to the Pico’s connectors, slide the keg cozy on the brew keg (essentially a keg “sweater” to keep the wort warm during brewing), and seal the top of the keg with the plastic seal.
Once you are set up, you can also choose the ABV (alcohol by volume) and bitterness of your brew. Once you do that, you are ready to hit brew on the Pico menu.
This is where the Pico takes over. For the next two hour and a half hours, the Pico takes the brew through all the stages: heating, doughing in, mashing, and boiling. If you’re like me, you’ll monitor the various brew stages on the LED screen, as well as periodically check the progress of the brew on the Picobrew website. There you can find a chart that maps out the progress by time on the x-axis and temperate on the y-axis.
One additional note about the brewing process: Even though the Pico is more automated than traditional homebrewing, you still get much of the sensory experience of homebrewing in the form of smell during the two and half hour brew cycle. A half-hour into my brew, the entire first floor of my house smelled like a small brewery. For me, this is a beautiful smell. For my wife, not so much. So, depending on whether you live someone who likes the smell of beer brewing, you may choose to do your brew when they are not home or move your Pico into the garage.
Cooling and Fermentation
Once the Pico finishes the brewing process, you then disconnect the brew keg from the Pico and put a small red plug into the plastic keg stopper on the top of the keg. You remove the keg cozy/sweater and then set aside the keg for 24 hours to let the wort cool. You’ll then want to run the Pico through the post-brew rinse process, which can be done with tap water and takes about 10 minutes.
Twenty-four hours later you are ready to start fermentation, that process which turns that liquid in the brew keg into tasty alcohol.
You can choose between regular fermentation -- which takes about ten days -- or fast fermentation, which takes between 3-5 days depending on the beer.
I chose fast-fermentation, which meant simply putting in the small red fast-fermentation adapter in the metal lid which goes on the brew keg. I poured the contents of the yeast packet into the brew keg, stirred the contents, and then locked the metal keg lid onto the brew keg. I shook the brew keg to mix up the wort and the yeast and then set aside the keg in my garage for the next four days.
Rack and Carbonation
Depending on the beer and temperature in your home, you will be ready to carbonate after about 4-6 days. The Half-Squeezed IPA I brewed fast-fermented in 4 days, so after waiting four long sleeps I was ready to force-carbonate my beer.
Just as with fermentation, Pico gives you a fast or slow track towards a tasty glass of suds and being anxious to get to my first pint, I chose force carbonation. This means instead of waiting a full ten days for natural carbonation, I chose to use the included CO2 cartridge (one comes with each PicoPak).
Before I could carbonate, I had to rack the beer, which means transferring it from the brew keg to the serving keg. This is done using the Pico appliance and takes about 10 minutes. Before the transfer process, you will transfer some of the initial wort to a waste container, as this allows you get rid of the sediment-heavy beer at the bottom of the brewkeg. Being the curious guy I am, I tried out some of the excess wort and thought it tasted pretty good (if a bit flat -- this was before carbonation).
After the wort/pre-carbonated beer is transferred to the serving keg, now you will add the CO2 cartridge to the top using the CO2 regulator which came in the accessories box. This is pretty straightforward and takes just a couple minutes. Then you will put the serving keg into your fridge for 36 hours to carbonate.
And remember to be patient here and let it carbonate for the full 36 hours. I could hardly wait to taste my beer and, after 24 hours, pulled the CO2 and served up a glass. It tasted good, but it was -- surprise surprise -- a bit flat.
Enjoy Your Homemade Beer
After you patiently wait for 36 hours for your beer to carbonate, you are ready to enjoy an cold glass of homemade, fresh beer.
All you need to do from here is simply take the CO2 adapter off, insert the unfortunately named ‘dispensing bung plug’ into the top of your serving keg and pour yourself a cold one (or two).
Here is what the first pour of my second (more carbonated) brew -- the Half Squeezed IPA -- looked like.
It was delicious!
Overall, I really enjoyed the process of brewing beer with the Pico. Using the beer brewing appliance from PicoBrew was easy and yet left enough of the process to make me feel like I was really making beer. I know that there will be beer-brewing enthusiasts who might laugh at that last statement, which is fine. I get it. You’ve put in the hard work and know that doing it the more manual way takes a lot more time and work.
But here’s the thing: I -- and lots of people like me -- don’t have the time or want to put in the work needed to brew beer at home the old fashioned way. The reality is we would never brew beer at home without something like the Pico and, like it or not, we are making real beer with the Pico, just in a way that takes a lot less work than the traditional method.
I do want to point out that brewing with the Pico had a few hiccups. On my third brew, the Pico failed to heat up properly and so I had to abandon the brew of my Buffalo Sweat oatmeal stout. I contacted the PicoBrew support who responded quickly and, despite not being able to figure out why my first attempt at brewing Buffalo Sweat, they sent out a new PicoPak which I was able to brew a few days later.
I also felt while the brewing guide sent out to Kickstarter backers had great instructions for brewing, it was pretty light on how to clean up properly. I never properly rinsed the racking tube after one of the brews and as a result noticed a slight amount of mold growing in it a week later. Once again, support was very helpful here and showed me how to rinse it and sent out a new racking tube.
Lastly, I want to say that even though I -- and many others -- have written that PicoBrew and other attempts at automated brewing are, in a sense, the “Keurig-ization” of the craft, I am now of the mind this term is inadequate when it comes to beer brewing automation. The reality is brewing beer takes time, and while the Pico does speed things up significantly, you still have to wait for nature to takes its course with the process of fermentation, carbonation, etc. In short, the term Keurig-ization implies speed and instant gratification, and that’s really impossible when you are creating a fermented beverage of any sort.
Bottom line: If you have $800 to spare and have always wanted to make beer at home, but never had the time or willingness to put up with the mess, I can highly recommend the Pico. It’s not quite the Keurig for beer -- for all the reasons I just explained -- but that’s a good thing.
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