In the end, no matter how you slice it, homebrewing is a hobby that involves a fair amount of work and patience. There’s a booming market of gadgetry involved in making the job easier and faster, but no matter what kind of technology you’re employing, brewing—and all-grain brewing in particular—is a process that eats up chunks of time both on brew day, bottling day, etc. Hot water still has to hit malt, temperatures need to be maintained, yeast needs to be pitched and time needs to pass.
Still, there’s always that dream of being able to homebrew effortlessly, and that’s where the PicoBrew Zymatic comes in. The Zymatic is a large, boxy, chrome machine that works as an all-in-one homebrewing device, designed to automate as many parts of the process as possible. You may have heard of it during the device’s very successful Kickstarter cycle, when it raised $661,000. But the machine is now commercially available to everyone—provided, of course, you feel like dropping a couple grand. As a homebrewer of eight years, I was certainly curious how it might be compared to my own experience with the hobby, and so we jumped at the chance when Paste was offered an opportunity to take a Zymatic through its paces.
I decided to test the machine out by attempting a full brew cycle during the course of a normal work day at the Paste offices … and yes, I realize how awesome it is that I can say this is a fairly typical part of my job description. Immediately, I ran into a hangup or two in setting up and minor assembly—there’s very little that actually needs to be done, and it’s easy work for the mechanically inclined, but I was in particular confused by text in the instruction manual that proved to be either confusing or straight-up incorrect. Reconnecting with the PicoBrew team, I received prompt explanations and an assurance that the instruction manual would be corrected.
The Zymatic essentially works by connecting to a standard 5-gallon soda/beer keg, often known as a “corny” or Cornelius keg, and circulating water from the keg into the machine, where it is heated to the proper temperature and then passed into a large grain bin in order to conduct the mash. The hot, sugary water (known as “wort”) is then heated to boiling temperature and passed through several hop cages the conduct your boil. All of this is completely automated at the push of a button. The Zymatic knows specifically what temperatures it should be holding because the recipe for each of the company’s kits is uploaded to it wirelessly—it connects with your own computer, in this case my laptop, allowing you to follow the process along on your screen as it goes through its paces. This is significant, as it also logs all of the data for each session, which can be revisited. It’s the kind of data I keep in my own brewing notebook at home.
Wanting to test the machine exactly as intended, we made our own “Party Porter” kit exactly as it was delivered to us. There are a few things to note here that homebrewers will want to be aware of:
The standard batch size on the Zymatic is 2.5 gallons, which is half of what is usually considered “typical” in homebrewing batches. It’s a trade-off: Less finished beer, but added incentive for experimentation. That batch size is basically dictated by the size of the grain bin that fits into the Zymatic. For our kit, a beer with an intended ABV of roughly 7%, it was a maximum grain load for the machine—meaning that 7% ABV is roughly the maximum alcohol percentage you can do with a single-infusion mash. There are settings, however, to recirculate the mash water and extract more sugars in order to make beers stronger than 7%. Of course, the trade-off is that this will add to the time of the brew cycle. I found the actual included recipe a little curious, particularly in the fact that it was labeled as a “porter.” At 7% ABV, it’s already stronger than you would expect, and the one dark malt in the grain bill is unmalted, roasted barley—the one type of dark malt that one typically differentiates stout from porter, although those terms are quite nebulous. These are obviously only issues of nomenclature, but if I was looking at the recipe without a name on it, I’d tell you it’s “American stout,” albeit with a lower hop rate.
The brew cycle
Once we’d figured out technical issues of set-up, the machine ran through its actual brew cycle admirably. Through my own error, I added slightly too much water to the keg in the initial phase (my measuring left something to be desired), which resulted in the grain bin overflowing a bit, but there’s a drip tray to collect the spill.
This portion is the Zymatic’s greatest strength—once the water starts heating, you’re free to simply walk away and keep an eye on the program via your computer. As long as you’ve done everything properly, there’s no reason you’ll need to touch the machine again until after the boil is completed. This is the simplicity you’re paying for.
After the boil is complete, the machine can run a cooling cycle, which I honestly found a bit more cumbersome than the immersion chiller/coil I would normally use while brewing in my own kitchen. Here, you’re sticking the keg into a plastic bucket of ice water, which is fairly inefficient and took significantly longer than implied to come down to temperature, even with the recommended amount of ice. You could theoretically also use a chiller of some kind, if you had one that was able to fit into the keg. This is a theme one finds in using the Zymatic—it’s an “all in one” device, yes, but using it is somewhat predicated on having access to the standard array of homebrewing tools. Things are greatly simplified by having the sort of items that homebrewers usually have on hand, from a beer thief/auto-siphon to spare carboys and a wort chiller. If you bought it while owning no other equipment, you’d be on your way to the local homebrewing store to pick up a few essentials at the very least.
You’re surely wondering how the actual beer turned out by this point, and my answer would be “decently.” It’s certainly drinkable, but I admit a touch odd—slightly boozy, with an unexpectedly vinous, dark fruitiness that is somewhat outside the expectation for the style. Still, there is some nice nuttiness and a depth of body to this “porter” we’ve made, and I expect the beer may continue to grow on me and improve with a bit more time in the bottle. It’s certainly drinkable, and more a matter of taste than process I think. Most of the dark beer styles I’ve made in my own kitchen over the years have never been mind-blowing either, so I’m at least comfortable in saying that the beer we made through the Zymatic is on par with similar beer I’ve made in the past.
Given the price tag alone, the Zymatic clearly isn’t a machine for everyone, although I should also note here that the company is now introducing a smaller, cheaper machine simply called the “Pico” that is in the middle of its own Kickstarter drive. Essentially a miniaturized version of the Zymatic, it brews 5-liter kegs of beer at a time and can be had for a mere $559 at the moment, although that price will increase to $899 once the Kickstarter period is over and the device is on the market.
What it boils down to is a matter of utility versus price. The Zymatic is a product that it seemingly being targeted toward older, affluent craft beer drinkers who are perhaps new to the concept of homebrewing and are looking for something to help simplify the process. Assuming they’re willing to pay the price, they may very well find using it to be an enjoyable way to get into the hobby, at least after getting past the initial hurdles of learning the technical side of the system. It’s also a system fairly well-suited to experimentation and crafting your own recipes, which might perhaps make the Zymatic a machine that experienced homebrewers would use to brew smaller test batches or try out new recipes before moving them to a larger system. The same goes for the Pico, which is really a miniature test system, given that you’re only making less than 3 growlers full of beer in each batch.
At the very least, the opportunity to use a Zymatic and watch the brewing process makes for a fun afternoon. If you ever have a chance to see one in action, check it out.
Jim Vorel is Paste’s news editor and craft beer geek. You can follow him on Twitter.