Beer brewing is about to change

Here’s The Little Box That Could Change The Beer World Forever

Going behind the scenes of the Picobrew Zymatic and its creators that went from software to suds.

Let me first get this out of the way: I don’t home brew, mostly because of all the things you just pictured in your head by reading the words “home” and “brew” side by side: Messy. Smelly. Angry wife.

But like most guys I do like beer, so when I read about the Kickstarter campaign for Picobrew Zymatic, I couldn’t help but be intrigued.

The device sounded amazing: An appliance about the size of a countertop microwave oven that can brew beer, connected to the Internet, all for about $1500.

Even more intriguing were the guys behind the box.

The CEO of Picobrew is Bill Mitchell, who at one time or another had ran Microsoft’s mobile phone business, early tablet efforts, the SPOT smartwatch business and a few others. CTO Avi Geiger was the principal hardware architect for the first Microsoft Surface and a few other mobile devices (remember the Kin?).

Bill Mitchell, pitching the Picobrew Zymatic on Kickstarter

Given that they’d left the comfort of Redmond for the startup world and some of their past efforts lined up with some of my current research interests, I decided I wanted to hear their story. I emailed Bill, mentioned something about how I’ve been doing work on smartwatches and saw he was the guy behind SPOT, and suggested a phone call.

Bill responded and said sure, he could talk on the phone, but that I should really come down to their office in Fremont where I could taste some of the beer they’d been whipping up in the lab.

I agreed, because it was quickly becoming clear to me that field research would be required.

Conducting “Research”

The next day when a friend and I arrived at Picobrew headquarters, Bill sat us down in the lobby turned tasting room and poured us a variety of tasty beers.

From the Picobrew Lobby/Tastingroom

I can say during that during the conversation the followed, Bill talked a lot about different types of hops, yeast, and a bunch of other stuff I wish I could remember but can’t, mostly I was really just enjoying the beer.

After we’d conducted sufficient preliminary “research”, Bill asked us if we’d like a tour of the place.

“Sure,” I said, making sure to pick up my beer.

Our first stop was the Picobrew machining and prototype room, a big room filled with a giant CNC router, electronics and lots of metal.

“I’m cheap,” said Bill, looking around. “We bought a lot of this stuff second hand.”

I pointed to a CNC router the size of a small Hyundai and asked where he got it.

“eBay” he told me. “From a guy down in Oregon.”

He explained that while they were going to produce the Kickstarter run of Zymatics using factory production and injection molded parts, they had to first spend a few years prototyping the box to get it small enough to fit on a kitchen counter.

Some heavy metal prototyping in the Picobrew machining room

“Did you use 3D printers for some parts?” I asked.

“Yes, I was one of the first customers of Makerbot,” he said.

Bill walked over to a large glass panel refrigerator and pointed to some bottles of beer inside. In here, he said, was where they had stored a methodically chosen spectrum of their favorite beers from around the world which they used to run taste tests against their own batches.

It was only after they had gotten to the point where they all agreed that each of their beers was on par with the benchmark beers did they feel they were getting close to production.

We then went to the lab, where Bill introduced us to a few interns (“We put our office directly between Fremont, where there are lots of breweries, and the UW, where we find lots cheap intern labor”) and then proceeded to give us a lesson on art of brewing.

The lab is where the magic happens

I could try and repeat the things he talked about — Northwest hops vs. Noble hops, the amazing work being done with beer yeasts, the flavor added through use of different oats and other ingredients — but I wouldn’t do it justice. Let me just say this guy knows his beer.

Where things got really interesting for me was when he showed us the Picobrew website and software, which is connected to the Picobrew Zymatic.

He logged into the Picobrew portal and the “recipe crafter” software and proceeded to show us how, with a few clicks of a button, you could import a beer recipe for pretty much any type of beer you like.

Want to brew a beer by some famous brewmaster? No problem. How about making a batch of Negra Modelo? Load the recipe into the recipe crafter software, order the exact ingredients (the site connects to home brew ingredients partners) and once you have the right ingredients, you start brewing.

“I decided to do this after home brewing for a few years,” said Bill, pointing to a “conventional” home brew set up they’d put in the lab.

The traditional method

“When you home brew, you can make a really great batch, but then you try and recreate it there’s a good chance it will taste completely different.”

I asked him why.

“Because even if the ingredients are the same, you might mash at a different temperature or for a different length of time. It’s very difficult to control the variables.”

I’m no beer making expert, but the point was driven home: making beer the old way required not only measuring ingredients, but replicating a beer brewing process exactly the same way to get a beer that tasted the same brew after brew.

In other words, exact replication, or something close to it, required that you own a professional brewing operation.

That is, until now. Until the Picobrew Zymatic.

Bill went on to caution that beermaking, even with the miracle of what the Zymatic, is still an art, still requires some level of talent.

“But,” I asked, “for the most part, you can dial the software in to create the same batch over and over and get something pretty close?”


“There’s nothing like it”

In making his Kickstarter video, Bill and team featured a number of Seattle area brewers who they’d brought into the lab to try out the Picobrew system. They all talked about the Zymatic in glowing terms, happy that for the first time they could test out recipes in small batches with high levels of precision without using the conventional, expensive brewery process in their own facilities.

And while I’d recognized some of the names of the breweries behind the brewmasters who were singing the praises of the Zymatic, the one person on the video that drove home the impact of the Zymatic on the craft beer world was Paul Shipman.

You see, it was as a college student in the early 90s when I really grew to like craft beer, and my favorite craft beer was Red Hook ESB. Shipman (alongside Gordon Bowker, cofounder of Starbucks) was the guy behind Red Hook.

And what did Shipman have to say about the Zymatic?

“Now, home brewing, has the potential to cover the entire waterfront of beer production. That’s what this does. And there is nothing like it.”

Paul Shipman of Redhook talking about the Zymatic

Nothing like it! If Shipman, the guy who founded one of the biggest craft brew companies in American thinks there is nothing like it, who am I to disagree?

The Thingiverse of Beer?

The more Bill showed us the recipe crafter, the ability to hone batches just so, and how Zymatic users can instantly share recipes across the world and have them replicated so that they taste essentially the same, the more it reminded me of another type of technology.

And just like a 3D printer like the Makerbot is cool but not revolutionary without the ability to share your ideas in a uniform way, the Zymatic becomes amazing exactly because of the Picobrew portal and the ability to share beer recipes based on beerXML (did you know there was a beerXML?), but the batch data associated with it as well.

Sure, there are lots of home and craft brew websites, but before it was simply sharing the recipe and hoping the brewer could get close. But only now can share your recipes and associated batch session data uniformly, have them brewed using the same exact equipment, and expect that they can be repeated over and over anywhere.

Again, like Thingiverse and a 3D printer.

In a few years, I expect maybe we’ll see beer “brew service bureaus” pop up in local neighorhoods across the world, where local aspiring brewers can upload their recipes on Zymatics they are renting by the hour and brew their favorite beer. Maybe we’ll see Zymatics — which are based on Arduino — make their way into makerspaces, and you’ll see brewing become another craft being honed by the new generation of makers and creators.

Is it the beer talking? Maybe, but I’m listening.

Maybe I’m going a bit overboard. Maybe this is just another in a long line of efforts to bring home brewing to the mass market.

Maybe a little beer box being made in the Fremont neighborhood in Seattle won’t change the beer world like I think it will.

Maybe, after all, it’s just the beer talking.

But then again, I don’t think so. And besides, if it is the beer talking, what it’s saying is pretty interesting and something different and new.

So I suggest grabbing a stein and give it a listen. You might just hear about the new world of beer.

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With Do-Anything IoT Button, Is Amazon Laying Groundwork For The Physical Interface of Consumer IoT?

The Dash IoT Button

I must admit, I was pretty excited reading the news of the Dash AWS-powered IoT button. After all, while I’ve written a lot about how the Dash button effectively demonstrates the power of a singular, simplistic physical interface for IoT, so far Dash button have been (purposefully) limited as single-brand purchase machines.

But what if Amazon enabled the consumer to use the button to purchase anything or, even better, set into motion any action in their connected home or connected lives? Now that would be something.

But alas, this is not that, at least not yet. In a post on the The Verge, Paul Miller does a good job of lamenting what could have been with this latest Dash button.

“The real ideal would be a button we can register with an app and have it trigger any action on the internet. It would be the perfect way to make IFTTT physical.”


But imagine for a moment if Amazon truly did make an all-purpose, do-anything button for the Dash, one that didn’t require an AWS account? And imagine if such a button enabled consumers to connect to any number of third party smart devices, online services to initiate, engage or transact?

That would be huge and, as Miller says, probably do nothing for Amazon’s button line. And therein probably lies the problem, at least if you’re Amazon.

The Dash IoT button for developers starts down this path, but it’s not really a consumer product. It’s really a developer product and, because it’s a developer product, requires an account with AWS and all the technical acumen and hassle that comes with that.

But I’m still hopeful. By starting down this path, Amazon may be laying the groundwork for developers to experiment with the IoT button and create compelling integrations, ones which, I have no doubt, Amazon will begin to showcase as what’s possible with a do-anything button. And who knows, maybe down the road they’ll release a more consumer friendly one that consumers can simply buy, register and simply assign an action?

If I know anything about Amazon, I suspect they might be thinking exactly along these same lines.

But what about making money, you’re ask? OK, so while a general-purpose Dash button may not be as directly tied to Amazon purchases as the first generation, the Seattle online giant might realize the power of owning the one-button IoT physical interface might actually be an indirect way to becoming an even bigger consumer IoT powerhouse they’ve already started to become with Echo and Alexa. With a do-anything button, not only will the own the voice interface layer for our connected lives, but could start to pave the way towards owning the physical interface.

The benefits of having access to all the data associated with tens of millions of distributed buttons in our homes, our workplaces and everywhere would be amazingly powerful. And, yes, a little scary.

But when’s that ever stopped Amazon?

Next Story — Hacking Gladwell: Welcome To The Era of Augmented Expertise
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Wilson’s Connected Football Will Create New Russell Wilsons At a Faster Rate

Hacking Gladwell: Welcome To The Era of Augmented Expertise

A few years ago, author Malcolm Gladwell posited a fairly straightforward idea that fast became a core tenet of the modern self-improvement industrial complex, this belief that if anyone spends a whole lotta time doing something — ten thousand hours to be precise — they’ll become really, really good at it.

Gladwell’s idea, since coined the ‘ten thousand hour rule’, is based on research by K. Anders Ericsson who developed a hypothesis that said a person becomes a elite at something, a true expert, through years and years of deliberate practice. Gladwell took this concept and ran with it in his book The Outliers, where he pointed to people like Bill Gates and The Beatles as examples of those who have developed elite skill through logging the necessary ten thousand hours at their respective crafts over the course of many years.

Hacking Gladwell’s Law

Increasingly however, instead of doing it the old fashioned way, people are gaining expertise, or at the very least producing elite expert-like results, in much shorter time period with the help of advanced technologies. Whether it’s perfecting your shot with sensor-powered basketballs, learning how to code online with e-learning services or using an app-driven cooking device that gives you chef-like results, today’s technology is increasingly offering products that can help someone become very good at something in a much shorter time period.

One major part of this trend is the democratization of online learning. Whether it’s the availability of coding courses online that provide access to technology education that previously required a college course in computer science or the proliferation of how-to videos on YouTube, the Internet provides access to world quality expertise in ways that were never possible before.

But it goes beyond online education. In fact, one could argue that it’s the application of newer technologies to provide real, physical world guidance that is the driving force behind completely new expertise-building experiences unlike we’ve ever seen before.

Take sports. With the arrival of connected footballs, kids — whether it’s in their backyard or within a formalized sports program — will know pretty quickly how tight their spirals are and how quickly they are improving both against their own past performance and against that of others. In short, technology is bringing Moneyball level analytics to the backyard, not to mention gamifying the experience so kids don’t need an entire team to get better, but can simulate the experience of a basketball or football game with a little brother or sister.

And how about becoming a master brewer? Before, brewing great beer usually involved thousands of hours and hundreds of late nights before you got to the point where that grain concoction of your’s was good enough win an award, let alone sell at the local pub. But now, companies like Picobrew and Brewie are applying IoT technology to the process of beer brewing to not only assure consistent results, but also to enable the aspiring brewer to brew beer recipes from master brewers from almost the get-go.

Forget Augmented Reality: Here Comes The Era of Augmented Expertise

In some ways, much of this isn’t any different than what’s been happening in the world for as long as mankind’s existed: The arrival of ever more advanced toolsets, which brings about expert results and gives people repeatable elite skills in ways that had previously been out of reach. The most obvious fields here are athletics and the military, where the application of new technology results in measurable improvements in shorter periods of time for people.

But unlike before, the fusion of computing technology with the physical world has created an acceleration of understanding in what seems like every conceivable arena imaginable. We’ll call this trend augmented expertise, where the arrival of low-cost sensors, GPS-like guidance systems for nearly everything and real-time analytics are combining to accelerate learning in practically every discipline. Whether it’s future musicians using connected pianos or would-be chefs achieving restaurant like results with a new sous vide cooker, the time it takes to achieve high quality — or even expert — results across a range of disciplines is shrinking.

All this said, it must be said that God-given talent still matters. If the last few decades in the world of sports has shown us anything, it’s that amazing results happen when you combine born talent with advanced technology and training techniques. We are in an era where world records hardly stand for a year or two, let alone for a decade. Still, with the arrival of new technology and the era of ‘augmented expertise’, we are entering a new age where technology will help us amateurs go from zero to sixty much faster, and maybe even make a really good steak while we’re at it.

Follow Mike on Twitter or read his (semi) weekly blog/newsletter on smart home and IoT trends.

This post was first published in Forbes.

Next Story — Why The Kitchen Is Now The Most Interesting Battleground In The Connected Home
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Why The Kitchen Is Now The Most Interesting Battleground In The Connected Home

When I first started writing about the connected home back in the 90s, it was apparent even in those early days that the Internet and in-home networks were a foundation for massive change. Whether it was new Internet-based phone services like Skype, streaming music services like Rhapsody or some of the early smart home products, it was clear that the advancement of computer technology and the network would change things in significant and unforeseen ways.

But for all the ways the connected home has changed our lives, it become clear in the intervening decade that the defining battle in this space was in the digital living room. Just about the time Wi-Fi became a household word, a steady drumbeat of innovation around Internet video could be heard, growing louder each year, until today where we find ourselves living in a completely new TV landscape, one where the barbarians have not only have broken down the gate, but they’ve moved in and kicked out some of the incumbents.

Just consider: Netflix is now the biggest paid video subscription provider in the US. Apple TV and Roku households number in the tens of millions. And nowadays, the biggest talents in Hollywood are more interested in doing creative deals with Amazon and Netflix than old-school TV networks and movie studios. At the same time, mobile screens have become a part of our mobile living rooms, changing how a generation of consumers consume and interact around entertainment. The end result is a hundred billion dollar plus industry has been transformed, as tens of billions have shifted from the incumbents to those companies who rethought an industry.

Is June The Roku Of The Connected Kitchen?

But more than a decade into the Netflix era, the dust is settling. Sure, there’s still lots of excitement ahead around ever-more immersive video experiences, exciting new technologies like 4K and VR (both of which are immensely interesting), but at this point we all know the old living room is not the new living room and have a pretty good idea where this story is going to go.

That’s not the case with the kitchen. In fact, this central gathering place in the home is on the precipice of a massive wave of change and, like the digital living room a decade ago, is showing many of the same early signs:

-Lots of startup activity and investment
-Incumbents actively trying
early experiments
-Some early big swings at trying to reimagine how
cooking, food delivery and the kitchen itself could look

Ok, so where exactly IS the opportunity here?

Simple: Everywhere. Just as we saw how new technology changed how people consume, acquire, store and talk about entertainment in the living room, so are we beginning to see how technology will change the entire delivery, storage and consumption of food in the coming decade.

But the comparison to the living room isn’t perfect since food and the connected kitchen is a much bigger opportunity, if for the simple reason that everyone eats. Overall food budgets are probably 5–10 times that of video entertainment, and the issues of being more efficient with food extends well beyond middle and upper class households (video entertainment’s sweet spot), but worldwide, across every region. And unlike video entertainment, those of use who cook are engaging in the act of creating something. Consumers spend massive amount of time and dollars trying to create better food, and for many of us technology will change how we do that in nearly every way in the coming decade.

This will happen as new technology and resulting business models are applied to every step of putting food on the table: shopping/replenishment, delivery, storage, preparation, serving and consumption. Part of it is the network itself, as connectivity and computing enabling us to better understand what food we have, to shop for it and how to cook it. But it’s so much more, with new cooking technologies such as RF cooking, imaging, molecular sensing, and more all making its way into our kitchens. We’re seeing professional cooking techniques democratized and now being made available to consumers, and high-end and messy hobbies becoming more and more automated to enable busy consumers to try their hand at them. And we haven’t even mentioned the widespread health benefits of being under to better understand your food through technology.

Predicting the future is hard, but I think it’s safe to say that at some point we’ll likely see all of the following become commonplace:

-Food subscriptions, connected food commerce and near real-time, automated food delivery (drone delivery of your Blue Apron fresh meal anyone?).
-More and more levels of cooking automation and advanced tools to help us take our cooking “craft” to high levels if we so desire (or we may just let the the machines to it all ; yes, in some form, cooking “robots” are coming).
Better information to help us handle our food so we don’t waste nearly as much as we do today.
-More unprocessed foods coming into the home and as technology allows those who want to reduce the amount of ”industrial” processing of the past by collapsing some of those functions into devices in the home.

I could go on and on, but the reality I expect all of this to happen. The one ingredient that’s missing is this industry still needs some companies to step up and set the pace, some leaders to set the template.

In other words, we’re still searching for the Netflix and Roku for the kitchen.

Michael Wolf is the creator of the Smart Kitchen Summit, the first event that looks at the future of the connected kitchen.

Next Story — The Coming Smart Home Shakeout
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The Coming Smart Home Shakeout

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I think we’re in for a little turbulence in the smart home market.

Not because the market isn’t growing. It is. It’s just not growing in a way that can make every investor, startup and big tech company happy.

This isn’t completely unexpected. Markets — especially new consumer technology markets as they are searching for defining use-cases, form factors and hero products — take time to figure themselves out.

The smart home industry is trying to figure itself out.

In the meantime, some investing in the space are disappointed in their early results. Companies like Best Buy, Lowe’s and others that have jumped into this market with gusto aren’t always seeing the type of demand they want for the products given the amount of shelf space they’ve allocated.

The early success has come in a few product categories like cameras, thermostats, maybe a few door locks. In other words, product categories consumers get immediately. Sales of smart home “systems” that include hubs and multiple devices have been selling more tepidly.This is a market education and messaging issue, as consumers still don’t fully get the concept of the smart home and certainly aren’t convinced they need to plop down hard earned cash for one.

But let’s not blame the consumer. They can’t be expected to understand the smart home while the smart home industry is still trying to figure itself out.

It reminds me of the prehistoric days of the video streaming market in 2004 when we in the industry knew at some point consumers would stream video and other great content to their TVs and around the home, but the consumers didn’t yet know it. Startups were taking early stabs at creating new categories like the media adapter (nostalgia link: here’s me writing about one for Network World), while others like Microsoft tried to build media streaming systems around their existing strengths and ultimately failed.

But the comparison isn’t perfect, because unlike whole-home video streaming, the smart home has been around in some form or another for 30–40 years. This early market of X-10 and other tech led to a more modern generation of DIY smart home products, brands such as INSTEON and then Mi Casa Verde, businesses built upon the hard work of their founders, who through grit and determination managed to create a market and community around their products and ecosystems. Other companies like Belkin entered the market with WeMo, finding success with an approach built around Wi-Fi. And then we saw a rush of upstart efforts like SmartThings, Revolv, Wink, Iris and Staples Connect, each with different but similar approaches.

All the while, consumers weren’t paying all that much attention. When they did decide to buy a product we in the industry consider a “smart home” system, the consumer thought they were buying a network camera to watch their dog or a connected thermostat to maybe save a little money.


In the meantime, we have new efforts like HomeKit and Google’s Weave/Brillo that hold some promise. We have obvious demand for products like smart home security systems because, well, consumers understand home security.

In other words, the industry is slowly figuring itself out, doing the hard, grinding work it takes to develop underlying technology that can lead to new services that consumers eventually will “get” and maybe find indispensible someday. But in the meantime, you have companies like Wink, who we recently learned seems on the brink, beleaguered by a combination of near blinding audacity of its parent company Quirky, product recalls and softer than expected demand for things called hubs. And Wink is probably the tip of the iceberg. I think there may be other companies or divisions like Wink, wholly invested in product strategies that might not be the resonating with the market, that we’ll likely learn about soon enough.

The good news is we’ll get there. We have some hero products that are seeing strong demand, we have big service providers investing tens of millions of dollars in market creation, and Apple and Google are doing what they do. We have innovative startups still innovating, in horizontal categories like interfaces, cloud rules engines and more, while there are also some exciting stuff going on in product categories like water, yards, smart kitchen and more.

Wikipedia defines a market shakeout as “a term used in business and economics to describe the consolidation of an industry or sector, in which businesses are eliminated or acquired through competition.”

It goes on to say that “shakeouts can often occur after an industry has experienced a period of rapid growth in demand followed by overexpansion by manufacturers.”

I think we’ll see more of both of these, rapid growth and consolidation. Rapid growth in hero categories and, eventually, fuller smart home “systems” as the market figures out what those should look like as the consumer tells them what they like. Consolidation too, as companies who have developed technology either don’t find enough of a market themselves or need to fall into the hands of someone with deeper pockets who think they can develop the market.

Either way, buckle up. It’s going to be an exciting but bumpy ride.

Originally published at my company blog.

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