PicoBrew Zymatic Is Like an Open Source Coffee Maker for Beer

By Wesley Fenlon

A successful $660,000 Kickstarter shows that people are interested in easy beer homebrewing.

Coffee trends have pushed coffee lovers away from their countertop machines and towards French Presses and Aeropresses and Chemexes, slower methods of brewing that tend to produce a better cup. Of course, millions and millions of people still prefer the cheap convenience of a coffee maker. Homebrewing beer, on the other hand, has never been as convenient as turning on Mr. Coffee. It's the kind of hobby people love to put time and energy into. But if you like to press a button to make your coffee, and wish you could do the same thing with beer, a Kickstarter for that just raised $661,026.

The PicoBrew Zymatic, created by former Microsoft engineer Bill Mitchell, is the coffee maker of home brewing systems. It's a self-contained box full of all the ingredients necessary to brew beer, automated to get brewing with a few buttons presses. It's a lot bigger than a coffee maker--it looks more like an industrial microwave oven--but that's still far smaller than your average brewing system.

Homebrewers will be able to brew their own recipes with the Zymatic, or replicate other recipes. "After downloading a recipe over Wi-Fi, users simply pre-load the water, malted barley and hops into each specified container before pressing 'brew,'" writes Smithsonian Mag. "A computer system controls the entire process and separate software allows users to monitor the beer’s status from any device. Once the 2 1/2 gallon keg of unfermented beer is ready, it only needs to be cooled and have yeast added to complete the process, which takes about a week. Each component was designed to be modular so that it easily fits in a dishwasher, to boot."

The PicoBrew Zymatic's development process, shown briefly on the Kickstarter page, is fascinating. Bill Mitchell and his brother, who co-founded PicoBrew, started with Arduinos and off-the-shelf parts. It took a couple years of prototyping before they nailed down the automated brewing process and developed custom control boards to control the process.

Naturally, the Zymatic isn't cheap. Kickstarter backers who shelled out between $1300 and $1600 guaranteed themselves a home brewer. The money gathered during the Kickstarter will be used to get the brewer into production.

Of course, some home brewing fans will hate the idea of an automated brewing system just as much as coffee fans hate coffee makers. Mitchell thought of that. The final FAQ on the Kickstarter page is "Where's the 'art' in Picobrewing?" The first part of the answer is that you can still combine ingredients in tons of ways. The second part of the answer is, well, this is some seriously open and tweakable technology.

"We made the software open source and were sharing the hardware schematics for exactly this. Brewers are a crafty bunch and there's a reason the term 'homebrew' is applied to a lot more things than beer. Multi-step mashes to experiment with sugar and enzyme profiles, that's already built in. You can develop intricate and unique mash schedules and run them repeatedly enough to know what makes a real difference. Want to do infinite hop editions? A few software changes will let you replace the adjunct load mid-brew and go as long as you want. You can even load up the mash compartment with a couple pounds of fresh hops. A new brewing vessel with additional compartments, go to town. You want to attach ball valves and multiple vessels for full-on decoction rig, no problem. Chillers, oxygenators, fermenting, all outside this box, though there is no limit to what you can do if you want to link things together with software."