Automated?!? That adjective seems to draw comments like “takes all the fun out of brewing” or “that’s nothing more than a Keurig for brewing” or “I want to be hands on in the brewing process”. Well having come from completely non automated brewing and slowly progressing into somewhat automated brewing I have to say it does have it’s place in homebrewing and certainly in small batch/small space brewing for several reasons but probably the most appealing is control and consistency. With consistency comes repeatability.
First let’s look at what automated means in home brewing. There are varying degrees or levels of automation and if you look at them they are not really “push a button and you have beer” automated. I think if that level of automation should ever come to be, would be at the same level as going to the pub or tap room and asking for a beer and shazaam there is a beer in front of you.
Let’s start by looking at what they all have in common with more traditional backyard/kitchen home brewing methods?
- Recipe selection – What do you want to brew? You either create a recipe, use one someone else has created or even buy an ingredient kit.
- Ingredients – You buy the ingredients with everything measured out and grains milled or you measure out everything and mill grains yourself.
- Add ingredients – you dump your measured ingredients (including water), either into a mash tun, kettle or a bin in a machine.
- Clean up the mess – you have to dump grains, clean up hop and hot break trub, you have to clean your equipment.
- Fermenting – you have add yeast and keep fermenter in a temperature controlled area.
- Dispensing – you have to rack, bottle or keg your finished beer.
I think we can all agree, especially when it comes to clean up and bottling, these are very “hands on” aspects of home brewing.
Levels of automation –
- None – You do everything by hand and control temperature by fiddling with burner valve or stove knob while watching a thermometer and control time by watching a clock.
- Slight – You use a mill to crush your grains, you use a pump to transfer wort but you still have very basic temperature and time control.
- Moderate – You add some sort of basic electronic process control for temperature control such as a PID or electromechanical thermostat that controls your burner. Some of these also offer basic timer capability. (This is where a growing number of home brewers are at)
- Moderately techie – You go with a computer based process control such as the Brew Boss, BrewTroller, Brewery Control System, BrewPi or similar control. These add a graphical user interface, pump automation and total temperature/time control.
- Moderately techie all in one – This would be the PicoBrew Zymatic, PicoBrew Pico, Brewie. These are a brewing appliance that is self-contained with web-enabled computer based time/temperature control, pump automation and require little or no interaction by the user during the mash and brew process. They handle the introduction of hops during the boil period by redirecting wort through hop compartments.
- Advanced – This would be extensions of the BrewTroller, BCS and BrewPi which add automated solenoid valves for water and wort flow and in some cases volume measurement so water/wort levels are controlled for you. They also can handle automated wort chilling at the end of the boil. These are also very DIY from the aspect of construction and the software side as they are open source platforms.
The brewing appliances such as the Brewie, PicoBrew Zymatic and Pico are automated to a degree but there is still plenty for the brewer to do.
The Brewie has not been released yet but appears to add water volume control as it requires a water connection.
The PicoBrew Pico is the most basic and is targeted at people that might be completely new to home brewing and want to start brewing their own beer . It offers 5L recipe kits, called Pico Paks, based on recipes submitted by craft breweries. This allows you to brew beers that sound appealing but you may never get to taste due to limited distribution by the breweries. PicoBrew is also working on creating Freestyle Pico Paks that allow you to brew your own recipes and they send you the ingredient pak with the ingredients you have chosen.
The PicoBrew Zymatic has been around since 2013 and is their more professional machine that allows the brewer to brew any 2.5 gallon recipe he or she creates with their own ingredients as well as access recipes from other Zymatic owners through the company’s website where the Zymatic owner creates and stores their recipes.
They are all small batch capable, have a small footprint for those with small space requirements and operate on standard 120V electrical service.
Countertop systems such as the Grainfather (technically sits on the floor) have moderate automation with a pump and have temperature control, operate on 120V and require little space. The Grainfather also can brew smaller batches as well as standard 5 gallon batches. The Grainfather has been successfully used for several years by home brewers in Australia and New Zealand before being released in the USA.
While these are certainly more expensive than your kettle on the stove method of brewing they also combine many elements of brewing equipment into one unit thus reducing space and equipment requirements.
When the Zymatic was the first brewing appliance to hit the market in 2013 I had the same initial feelings as most but after doing more research and reading reviews and owner’s experiences I realized it is a sound brewing process. Several AHA National competition winners brewed their beers on the Zymatic and many craft breweries are using them for recipe development.
Are these brewing appliances for everyone? No. Are they, or some sort of automation something to at least consider? Definitely, based on your budget. I just aquired a used PicoBrew Zymatic and while I haven’t brewed on it yet I am excited to start. I did have to perform some maintenance on the machine because it wasn’t taken care of so I can attest to the value. The construction, engineering and development that went into it, and most likely the other systems, makes them worth every penny. Will I abandon my current system? Nope because it produces good beer and I designed it for my situation and brewing style and ultimately I enjoy brewing on it.
I guess the biggest appealing factor to me about some level of automation is the ability to relax while I brew and focus on the beer itself, the ingredients and what they contribute to the final product and have that consistency and control that automation provides.