As a brewer-in-training, I’ve had the esteemed pleasure of working with some extremely talented artists who make some of the best suds you could ever put in your mouth. The art and science of brewing beer dates back to the days of Pharaohs and the pyramids, yet it’s still being practiced and, in many ways, perfected today. Though for all the advances we’ve made in brewing science (yeast, for instance, wasn’t seen as a critical ingredient for fermentation until after Louis Pasteur noted it) one thing remains a constant.
It takes time. Every step of the process takes time.
There’s one brewer in particular that I’ve worked with (I’ll save him the embarrassment of naming him publicly) who has not only taught me this principle, he embodies it. While it may take hours to actually mix the ingredients together, letting it ferment, clear up, and even age takes weeks, months and even years depending on the style.
It’s with this mindset and this appreciation for the slow science that I write the following blog.
Some guys in Washington are trying to sell a computerized brewing machine in attempts to speed up this process. This, in my opinion, is fundamentally opposed to good beer and everything good beer should teach us.
Introducing the PicoBrew Zymatic, a machine the cofounder proudly hails as the Nespresso machine for beer. That’s pretty much what it is; you load up the thing with your malt, hops and adjuncts, fill a keg with water, and set the thing going. In about 3 & 1/2 hours, you’re left with wort, or unfermented beer. This still needs to be fermented and carbonated, of course, adding another week to the process. The point, I believe, is to simply throw some raw material in the machine, press a button, and completely remove yourself from the brewing process.
In my imagination, an obese oaf slaps the machine with a ham fist and shouts “MAKE ME BEER, MACHINE!” as he starts his first batch.
“The biggest reason people probably stop home brewing is it just became too time consuming and too laborious for them,” says Jon Mendrick, the owner of Mountain Homebrew in the Kickstarter video.
“There’s no art in scrubbing out a kettle. There’s no art in sitting in front of a crab cooker and reading a book,” exclaims Avi Geiger, a cofounder of PicoBrew.
But apparently, there IS art in dumping in some grain, pushing a button, and coming back three hours later.
I won’t lie to you, reader. Brewing beer isn’t easy. It’s even harder for casual home brewers who don’t have professional set ups. There are a lot of points for failure in their system. Yet, for those brewers who appreciate the art, their machine isn’t simply a collection of knobs, valves, tubes and elements; it’s a tool, something they work WITH as opposed to work ON.
There’s a difference there. A system you work ON, such as the PicoBrew Zymatic, requires little more than inputting some data points and having it do the work for you.
A system you work WITH, however, becomes a partner. It’s an old trusty guitar with its own quirks and personality. It’s a knife that’s been worn to fit the chef’s hands. It becomes part of the process, and taking this equation out completely removes the human element and, thereby, the storytelling element, out of brewing great beer.
To quote Churchill, (because we should all do it more often) “I’ve taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has out of me.”
There’s more to take out of alcohol than booze and bad decisions. Alcohol can teach us things about life, about the daily goings on and how we can learn from them. But more than that, great beer is a story, a conversation between the brewer and the drinker. Some brewers are fantastic storytellers, their beers nothing less than tales turned over and over again until the delivery is spot-on perfect. They know when to be quiet, they know when to be loud. They know when to grab the drinker by the collar and when to give them a break.
(For an example of these kinds of beers, simply try almost anything from Germany. It’s not just a cliche; the traditional styles of Germany have been told and retold for thousands of years, and the story just gets better.)
In any sense, the PicoBrew Zymatic looks to be best applied in large breweries as a way to test new batches. It’s being pitched as a way to draft new recipes and give them a shot in a risk-free environment without taking up precious space in the kettles.
This is even more frightening; it becomes more of a computerized drawing of an artist’s next great masterpiece rather than something toiled over.
I willingly admit that my opinion isn’t financially responsible. The PicoBrew Zymatic makes perfect fiscal sense, especially for the large scale brewery. Yet, I also willingly admit that there’s more to life than making money, and the careful artistry practiced in brewing shouldn’t just be appreciated by the beer drinker; it should teach the brewer to become a better person, to constantly try to improve themselves and think of others first.
A lofty goal? Sure. But there’s nothing wrong with pursuing it.
The $1,400 machine may one day encourage a new breed of brewers to pick up the paddle and start weaving their own yarns, but as it stands it looks to remove the actual art and life lessons from brewing and turn it into a repeatable routine, something altogether thoughtless and mindless.
In other words, it looks to turn home brewing into a corporation.
By almost completely removing the human element from brewing, it might as well be brewing Bud Light.
Image Credit: PicoBrew LLC
About Michael Harper
Michael is a fan of All things alphabetical, The Beatles, his MacBook Pro, the Oxford Comma, and Vinyl LPs. When he isn’t forcing metaphors into tech stories, he’s usually brewing craft beer, following the Texas Rangers, and reliving his youth in a 90s cover band. He and his wife let a cat live with them, rent free, and escape to the mountains as often as possible. Michael is also an NPR listener and long-time vegetarian. For Twitter fun-times, follow @Oh_Okay.