December 12, 2017
In a world filled with endless choices, perhaps one that never gives up is that of the beer market. In the past year, overall sales were static; however, the craft beer market still enjoyed a 6.2 percent increase, especially for microbreweries. While the bubble has yet to burst, and seemingly every few months another brewery appears, one thing is a constant, and that is, American’s love their beer.
Like most things we love, some of the brave and bold attempt to dabble in it ourselves and invest in it as a hobby. Your yoga friend may be making Kombucha, your niece might be 3D printing things her brother broke, and your partner is still snapping brunch items hoping one day to become a star. But you, you want to brew beer.
It’s not quite like the days of moonshiners, brewing sketchy semi-explosive liquids out in the mountains, the art of beer brewing is easier than ever. Sure, you can use the terrible Mr. Beer (it’s ok, he was my first, too), but now a new challenger has hit the market and suggests that it takes all of the heavy lifting out of the beer brewing process.
PicoBrew has various systems on the market, and now their latest, the Pico C, is no mere jug that you fill with extract beer wort, it’s a heavily automated, self-contained, Keurig on crack. Like Keurig, the Pico C uses self-contained, pre-measured hops, and pre-milled grains to produce consistent brews due to its automations. However, that’s where I’ll stop comparing it to the over-simplified coffee machine, as it’s a bit more involved. With that, let’s take a look at what this this very successful Kickstarter offspring can do, along with their latest PicoFerm monitor and forced carbonation system.
Pico C First Look and Review
Homebrewing is as much of an artform as it is a science. And like most science related things, you need a sterile, controlled environment, or you’ll get skunked, terrible beer. Once you’ve set up an account, which is actually the only real challenging process due to the rotary style character selection to choose a password, everything else is easy-peasy.
I’ve been brewing for well over a decade now, and the biggest cause of a ruined beer, besides adding fruit, is due to improper cleaning before and maintaining during fermentation. Fortunately with the Pico C cleaning is insanely easy, and prior to brewing your first batch, it runs you through a simple rinse cycle. The process took about 10 minutes, and really only consisted of rinsing things with tap water, and then distilled water through the hoses and internals. I was a bit surprised they don’t encourage the use of StarSan, which is sort of a mandatory of any homebrewing process, but maybe the excess foam gets in the way.
You can take a look at the process here, but if you want a comparison to the prep work of regular extract or all-grain, you’re going to be doing about 30 minutes of pre-rinsing in star-san, setting up your pot or burner, and possibly even milling your grain. Right off you’ve already likely saved about 20 minutes or so.
Homebrewing can come in a few different forms. Both extract and all-grain require that you need to boil your wort for about 60 minutes; however, for grain based brews you’ll need another 30-60 minutes before that. During the beer brewing process one of the biggest challenges comes down to temperature. During the pre-boil or getting the mash ready, typically you also need more equipment unless you are doing brew-in-a-bag.
In all, you can expect to be hands-on 2 to 3 hours for a 5-10 gallon batch for regular all-grain brewing. It’s constant stirring, making sure the temperature is right, occasionally adding in hops during the boil, and of course sitting back and enjoying a homebrew. You still need to then chill the wort and transfer it into a bucket or carboy. In all, it’s a wonderful experience, the smell is like magic (it grows on you), and everyone should experience it once. However, it does take a lot of time. I even automated my brew-in-a-bag flow by using the Anova sous vide to constantly circulate water and keep it at a specific temp. It worked great, but was just a bit slow and that’s not ideal.
With the Pico C? Get ready to have your mind blown. It takes about 10 minutes of hands-on time. That’s it. Ten whole minutes. Here’s the process in action. You can also monitor the brewing progress from the website (no app available), which gives you information about where in the wort conversion process the Pico C is at. It’s pretty neat to see the temperature shifts in motion.
Once you’ve completed a rinse cycle all you really need to do is fill the top with distilled water, pop a tube in the keg and close it up, pop in the grain container and hop container in the step filter in a hop cradle, (PicoPaks), connect hoses to the keg, wrap your keg with a koozie, and then you press the Pico C knob a few times.
During the final setup you can also tweak the IBUs and ABV. Your beer wort process is then fully automated, and will do its thing for about 2.5 hours. The beer sits over night until it hits room temperature, you toss in your yeast, and in a few days you’re ready to keg and carbonate the beer. Based on the design of the Pico C, I get why they just encourage you to let the keg sit and cool itself down; however, once you’ve used a wort chiller it’s hard to ever go back to that kind of process. That being said, the wort is never exposed to air, so it’s less of a concern.
During the regular homebrewing process, once you’ve finished your beer wort and pitched the yeast, you basically forget about it until you either need to swap the beer into a secondary or dry hop it. Personally I never really did anything to actively monitor progress besides making sure the carboy didn’t explode, or making sure it didn’t get exposed to the sun where a lot of off flavors can come from. If you want to get fancy, especially if making your own recipes, there are a few apps and software for this, too. In the past I used the original iBrewMaster, which would calculate when you should dry hop, switch to a secondary, and all the other important dates. Using the Pico C on the other hand gives you two different options: a sticker temperature gauge or the PicoFerm.
The easiest route for ensuring your wort has farted enough post yeast combination is to just track the date and the consistent temperature. PicoBrew includes a sticker temperature gauge, and it even prompts you to know if it will be done sooner or later. From there, you’re ready to keg the beer. If you want to get fancy and truly monitor your beer fermentation, the PicoFerm will do the trick. It’s still technically in beta until next month, but PicoBrew was kind enough to let us test it.
Like the web tracker on the brewing process, PicoFerm uses proprietary technology to monitor both the temperature and pressure within the keg. The combined information is then mapped up against the requirements for the beer, and it then plots when active fermentation stops. When this occurs the beer is ready for kegging and carbonation, or until ready placed in a fridge.
As you can see, it shows the keg temperature remained relatively consistent at room temperature, but realistically it should have been wrapped in the evening to keep it within one degree to reduce any impact on flavor. It still came out great, but consistency is key for beer. Now having used the PicoFerm, I’m not sure I can actually go back to the lazy non-monitoring process. I’ve always been reliant on data, and with the PicoFerm, you can really get down into what’s happening during the fermentation process and it does the math for you. Otherwise you’d have to calculate based on the ale or lager type, yeast, and additives how long and at what temperature fermentation will last.
Some brewers do complete this with software, but once again PicoBrew is taking the pain out of the process. Once the PicoFerm begins to ship in January, it’ll cost $60. If you want to really monitor your beer, this is a great addition to have. Let’s call this our review within a review, and we certainly can recommend it at that price. There are a few less savvy, brand-neutral systems on the market, but even those cost more. Obviously the PicoFerm can only be used on their kegs though.
Kegging and Carbonating
I have a love hate relationship with the traditional bottling process for homebrewing. Cleaning each bottle is a nightmare, and I never got behind sticking them in a dishwasher. However, filling each bottle, capping it, and letting it bottle carbonate was one of my favorite parts of the process. All of it took far too long though, which is why many homebrewers end up getting a kegging system. To me, this took up way more room than I could devote to the hobby, so I never dabbled in it.
Like everything else for the Pico C, they have easy solutions for this. The kegging process on the Pico C is just as simple as the brewing. You pop the airlock off the keg, connect up a hose, and connect a second hose into the serving keg. The Pico C will walk you through a few steps, and off it goes racking your beer. From there you can choose to bottle condition the beer that allows it to naturally carbonate or you can force carb it.
Rather than a giant CO2 tank and dedicated fridge for your keg, the Pico C uses small CO2 cartridges in a CO2 regulator ($60). You replace the airlock with a special one for the regulator, pop in the regulator, screw in the cartridge, and then let the air out of it. I had trouble with this for the first two, but after getting the hang of it the process was easy. I was also not really sure how to monitor it, but the process was supposed to sit for about 2.5 days in your fridge. After looking at the gauge over night it looked like the regulator had the CO2 resting at zero, so I popped a new cartridge in. And that’s it, the beer was ready to be served.
It was time. All of my non-hard work would pay off, and it was time to taste the fruits of Pico C’s labor. I popped the seal off the serving keg, pulled out the plunger, and turned the end until beer started to flow. The glass was full, the beer clarity was perfect, and there was just the right amount of head.
Color me impressed, because my typical homebrew batches typically had at least some sediment (which really turns off your non-homebrewing friends), and there was some concern about the carbonation. Now I can’t compare the flavor of the recipe to the craft beer in stores, but my first batch tasted just a bit more watery than desired. Outside of that, the ABV was probably on point since I’m a lightweight now, it just wasn’t quite as bitter or as flavorful as I expected; however, looking at Beeradvocate feedback on the real deal, it’s not supposed to have punch you in the face hop bitterness anyways.
Time for a second batch?
Design and Cleaning
Homebrewing takes up a lot of space. You have carboys, beer bottles, buckets, pots, things to clean, and then it can get excessive with kegging equipment, larger fermentation vessels, and endless accessories. The Pico C is like an oversized microwave by comparison, and then it comes with a mini-keg and a serving keg. By comparison, the amount of space you take back is simply astounding, with the understanding that you produce less volume. Not only are you saving space, but as you can tell from the various other sections, the Pico C is made to be easy to use.
Now I typically don’t look much into other reviews while writing my own, but many assert that this doesn’t save much time or is still a hassle. There is no way these people have brewed anything outside of a Mr. Beer if that is their mindset, because the Pico C is the easiest thing I’ve ever used to brew beer.
On cleaning? It basically manages everything on its own. Occasionally in the cleaning processes you’ll need to disconnect or connect a hose, hand washing the post-fermented keg, move the step filter out and rinse it, or stick some things in StarSan, but otherwise the Pico C took the part I hate most about brewing and made it insanely easy.
Pros and Cons
- Super easy to use
- Automates the brewing process
- Produces clean, good tasting beer
- Takes up way less space than brewing equipment
- Easy to clean
- Not fully customizable brewing, basically DRM
Should you buy the Pico C? I’ll be honest, this one is a head scratcher for me. As a semi-retired homebrewer, the Pico C absolutely appeals to me.
If I already invested in an all-grain setup, it’d be a difficult buy. For all-grain, you iteratively purchase more and more equipment, and it definitely becomes a large financial investment (with no resale value). In fact my outdoor storage area is just filled with homebrewing equipment. The only counter-argument is that for all-grain homebrewers we occasionally make smaller batches to test recipes, and the Pico C most certainly can tackle that to a degree (you still need to do it with PicoBrew though).
My one true gripe as an all-grain brewer comes down to customizations. Yes, you can create your own recipe, but that is the art form of beer. For the science, you should also be able to adjust the temperature and cycle times, and I feel like this machine is fully capable of allowing it. PicoBrew, take off the governor and this would be an amazing resource (and space saver).
If you are a homebrewer and still on extract, this could certainly be of interest, especially since you can customize your own brews through PicoBrews site, and experimenting with flavors is no easy feat. You also won’t ever have to experience boilovers, carboy blowouts, bottle bombs, or that terrible goo called extract malt.
For everyone else, it’s a bit of a pricey buy at full price, but I can easily see this doing well in a startup’s office, a low-key way to get into homebrewing as a starter, and even for someone who lives in a craft beer desert. The Pico C is insanely easy to use, takes so much less time than your standard beer brewing process, and will yield you the freshest beer possible. With these points in mind, the Pico C gets a solid 4 out of 5 from me; however, if they open up full recipe controls, it’d get close to a perfect score.
Price: $550, currently $450
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