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.
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?).
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
“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.”
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.