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I’m in my mother’s kitchen in Los Angeles drinking a beer with my sister on a hot spring afternoon. The beer is a bready, hoppy IPA without any overwhelming flavors that would make you think too hard. The alcohol content is acceptable. The brew is properly carbonated and doesn’t taste flat. This beer isn’t going to win any awards, but I could serve it to friends and family without having to apologize for it. In short, it’s easy drinking, something you can have a conversation over.
reviewed the Zymatic, a large machine that was supposed to help brewers cook up their wort automatically—but the fermentation process was largely left in the hands of the Zymatic owner. I produced two below-average beers, perhaps owing to the heatwave I was brewing in at the time (the temperatures surely killed off some yeast). But another part of the problem with the Zymatic was that it combined a machine-driven brewing process with the traditionally hands-on fermentation, bottling, and carbonating processes. It was hardly the “set-it-and-forget-it” appliance that I expected.
This particular beer I recently drank, however, came from the second iteration of PicoBrew’s home beer-making appliance: the PicoBrew Pico (yes, somehow someone decided that was the right name for it). The second-gen appliance has its problems, but it has also improved from the previous version in many ways. Most of all, I’m interested in watching PicoBrew try to solve a problem no one has (that is: “I’m bad at making beer but buying beer from a liquor store is too mainstream for me”) in a way that’s actually clever. I probably wouldn’t shell out $800 on this appliance, but Pico beer making has gotten a bit more compelling.
Keurig for beer? (Wait, hold your groans)
The Pico is about two-thirds the size of the Zymatic, so while it actually does fit on a countertop this time, it’s still about the size of a microwave. The Pico probably wouldn’t be a fixture in any but the largest kitchens.
Operating the Pico requires less work than operating the Zymatic. That comes with a tradeoff, though: you can only brew with PicoBrew’s pre-packaged, proprietary PicoPaks. (Yes, “pack” with no “c” because how else is PicoBrew going to maintain that Silicon Valley glamour?) The “Paks” come with an RFID tag that the machine reads before you start brewing.
While this is generally a cringe-worthy way to create repeat customers out of one-time appliance sales à la the Keurig or the infamous Juicero, take a deep breath if you find your fingers getting hot and twitchy with the urge to write a rage comment. For one, the PicoPaks are compostable, so you’re not doing the same damage done by plastic coffee cartridges or worthless juice bags. Also, PicoBrew’s website allows you to buy custom Paks through the “PicoBrew Freestyle” portal (a ripoff of Coke Freestyle machines, perhaps?). Once you insert a Pak, you can have the machine make adjustments to brewing temperature and time to reach desired bitterness levels and alcohol content (ABV, or alcohol by volume), for example.
The purist will note that you can’t make any kind of PicoPak you want in the PicoBrew Freestyle market—they will stop you from adjusting a recipe’s ratio of certain kinds of grain after a while. This appliance comes with defined boundaries of all kinds. But it’s also not going to force you to choke down a narrow variety of hand-curated concoctions.
PicoBrew is positioning itself to be a sort of rare-beer distributor, courting breweries of all sizes to “get in the marketplace” by creating their own PicoPaks that Pico owners can buy. So if you’re a brewer in Washington state that makes a rare Amber but you can’t afford to ship it to devotees in Nebraska, you could, theoretically, contract with PicoBrew to build and sell the, um, “raw” form of your beer.
When you order a PicoBrew Pico, it comes with a whole slew of parts besides the machine itself. You’ll get a small brewing keg and a similarly sized serving keg, as well as a box of components including a CO2 regulator and cartridges, an assortment of cleaning pipes, a small packet of powder detergent for cleaning components after you brew, and an assortment of plugs and lids for the kegs. For all the components you’ll encounter, there’s not a lot of mechanical setup necessary on the machine right off the bat.
Setup was just as easy on the Pico as it was on the Zymatic: connect to the Internet and your PicoBrew account, wait for any outstanding firmware to download, and you’re ready to do a first rinse of the machine. The setup process is made extra-simple here because you don’t have to go to the PicoBrew Web interface to add the next recipe you want to brew—the machine will automatically know that information when it reads the smart label on the PicoPak you insert.
After I unwrapped the Pico carefully and connected it to my home network, the screen on the appliance walked me through my first rinse. In general, the Pico’s screen prompts you through the cleaning and brewing process, but I leaned heavily on the spiral-bound IRL manual that came in the box because it was more detailed.
Listing image by Megan Geuss