After reading Ariana’s post about the PicoBrew Pico homebrew system, I became intrigued by the machine, and I even considered purchasing one.
When PicoBrew released the Zymatic in 2013, I found it interesting, but I didn’t even consider buying one because it was too expensive (roughly $2,000). PicoBrew’s recently released Pico, however, is a smaller and much less expensive machine, which is currently going for less than $600 on Kickstarter. This got my attention, so I did some more research on it.
After reading multiple articles and online forums about the Zymatic and the Pico, I came across all sorts of opinions. Some were extremely supportive of the product and some were rather contentious, even humorously hateful. “If you brew with a Pico, I don’t wanna be your friend,” one person wrote.
I’m not sure where all the vitriol toward this machine comes from. Maybe some homebrewers feel like it’s a novelty product that cheapens their beloved hobby. Or maybe some feel threatened by the thought of a complete homebrewing novice buying a Pico, essentially pushing a button and producing a beer that tastes better than what they can make. Others might be dishing out the hate because they secretly want one, but can’t afford it.
I can understand the backlash to an extent. Sometimes I get sick of all the gimmicky, beer-related products that try to jump on the bandwagon of the craft beer and homebrewing movements. But I think the Pico, which has been called everything from an “Easy Brew Oven” to “the Keurig of Beer Brewing,” is different. When you consider its small size and what it actually does, it’s an engineering marvel.
Within the more serious posts I came across, some homebrewers seemed concerned by how the Pico reduces your control. But others said they like it because it simplifies things and eliminates the hassle of all the controls and cleanup. Plus it offers consistent, repeatable results from one batch of beer to the next.
Looking past all the love, hate and humor, I noticed a deeper, underlining question that kept coming up in various forums: What defines a homebrewer, and where do you draw the line? I’ll delve into this topic soon, but let me stay focused on Pico for now.
WHAT I LIKE ABOUT PICO
While I love homebrewing, I’ll admit that I don’t necessarily enjoy every aspect of it. Specifically, the cleaning aspects. The Pico takes care of much of this, and its smaller size makes the cleaning you do have to do much more manageable.
The Pico can do some things I can’t do with my current system, such as wort circulation (vorlaufing, whirlpooling, etc.) and pumping. It also controls temperatures better than I can. These are not major issues, but they are Pico advantages.
Many homebrewers struggle with consistency. I’m not necessarily referring to quality, but rather being able to brew the same batch of beer over and over again, and have it turn out exactly the same each time (come to think of it, many craft brewers even struggle with this). There are countless variables in homebrewing that are difficult to control, including times, temperatures, measurements and efficiencies. Through automation and precise temperature controls, Pico handles all of this for you.
Increasingly, I enjoy brewing smaller-size batches, and the Pico allows for this. That said, the Pico’s 1.3-gallon batch size is a bit too small for me, so maybe this isn’t much of an advantage.
In general, the Pico seems like it would be easy to use and easy to clean, plus it uses less equipment, it takes up less space, and it requires less time. I also like its wireless and online features.
WHAT I DISLIKE ABOUT PICO
Personally, my favorite things about homebrewing are being able to express creativity through recipe formulation and being able to experiment with ingredients and processes. In other words, I love to create and tweak recipes, I love to introduce unusual ingredients, and I love to experiment with different processes like kettle souring and decoction mashing. PicoBrew is very limited in these areas. Sure, Pico brewers can choose among a growing list of ingredient packs, called PicoPaks, from brewers and breweries around the world, plus each batch can be slightly customized by adjusting bitterness and alcohol levels, but I prefer to create my own recipes.
PicoBrew also plans to offer FreeStyle PicoPaks, where you can customize your own recipe online and have a PicoPak made for you, but it’s still too restricted and limited, in my opinion.
Currently, the Pico is going for $559 on the Kickstarter page (with less than two weeks to go), which is kind of pricey, even though it’s $400 less than the retail price, which will be $999. (Compare this to traditional homebrewing equipment, which costs less than $200 for everything you’d need to get started in the hobby.) But the cost doesn’t stop there. PicoPaks (ingredients for each 1.3-gallon batch of beer) will cost $18 to $30, which is much more, pound for pound / volume for volume, than a traditional 5-gallon batch of homebrew.
One of the things I like about the Pico is that it automates the initial processes of brewing. But at the same time, I worry that this would cause me to become too detached from my hobby (i.e. passion). I also worry that this hands-off approach might take some of the romance and soul out of the brewing process.
WHO IS THE PICO FOR?
The way I see it, this machine might be good for beginner homebrewers who want to jump into the hobby at a high level. Unfortunately, they might not learn as much about the initial brewing processes because the Pico will do them automatically. But who knows, maybe it will lead some beginners deeper into brewing. Or maybe these people won’t care what’s going on, and maybe they just want to easily make fresh beer at home.
I suppose the Pico might also be good for an aspiring homebrewer who lives in a small apartment or studio. After all, the Pico is only a foot wide.
Or maybe it would be good for someone who doesn’t want to hassle with traditional homebrewing and lives in a remote place with bad access to commercial craft beer.
I think the Pico might also appeal to some experienced homebrewers who want to simplify things, and really don’t care about only being able to brew from kits (or their own recipes using limited ingredients and processes).
By the way, I should note that this is not the only automated homebrew system on the market. There are some others out there with varying amounts of automation, and they vary greatly in size, features and cost, including Brewie, Minibrew, Brew-Boss, The Grainfather, Blichmann’s BrewEasy, Synergy, Williams Warn, and more.
THE CATCH 22
In my experience, most people get into homebrewing because they want to learn how to make beer. Or they want to make beers that are not commercially available. Or they want to take an existing style and adjust it to their liking. Or they want to push the envelope and experiment with ingredients and/or processes. Unfortunately, the Pico is limited in these departments. Yes, it provides a short and easy path for people to jump into the deep end of homebrewing, but in the long run, they may yearn for a deeper experience.
To add, many homebrewers, at least the ones I know, enjoy tinkering with equipment and facilitating the actual process of making wort, whether it’s extract, partial mash or all grain, and Pico takes away a good amount of that process.
Regardless, I wish PicoBrew the best of luck, as any product that gets more people into homebrewing (or homebrewing more) is a good thing.
MY FINAL THOUGHTS
The Pico seems like the real deal. I don’t think it’s a novelty or a gimmick, and if you buy one I won’t think any less of you, just as I don’t think any less of someone who brews extract-only beers or someone who brews with a Mr. Beer. The Pico is expensive and it has many limitations, but I have to admit, I came very close to purchasing one. It was only after learning that I wouldn’t be able to create my own recipes that it became a deal breaker for me. I still think it would be a fun toy to mess around with, but I guess I’ll just stick with my current system for now. Or maybe I’ll buy $600 worth of upgrades for it.