Mike Snider, USA TODAY
3:50 p.m. EDT October 28, 2013
Making home brewing of beer easier is the goal of the PicoBrew automated beer brewing machine.
As an executive at Microsoft, Bill Mitchell helped the software giant launch devices such as handheld PCs and smartphones that were ahead of their time.
But his new venture, the at-home beer brewing system PicoBrew, looks very timely.
Mitchell and his fellow co-founders had hoped to raise $150,000 in funding by launching the PicoBrew Zymatic automatic beer brewing appliance project on Kickstarter last month. PicoBrew hit its goal in one day.
Since then, funding has surpassed $570,000 – the third-highest food-related Kickstarter project so far. The funding period ends Oct. 30; those interested can still pony up $1,599 or more to get one of the first PicoBrews early next year.
Professional craft breweries and home brewers alike have shown interest in PicoBrew, Mitchell says. “We wanted to build a tool that would make enough advances in quality and repeatability that the top folks in the industry would be inclined to use it,” he says. “We’ve had a lot of home brewers come in and say, ‘This is what I need’ because they haven’t had time to brew. They can load things up, do the fun parts of it and not the parts that aren’t as fun, the washing up and the watching the pot boil.”
As many as 1 million Americans brew beer at home, according to estimates by The Brewers Association. Mitchell and his brother, Jim, were among them.
An engineer and technical executive for more than 18 years at Microsoft, Mitchell led Microsoft’s Windows CE, Pocket PC, smartphone, smart watch, tablet and, eventually, a portion of Windows 7. Before he left in January 2010, the one-time home beer brewer had reengaged with the hobby, something he had experimented with in college. His brother, Jim, a food processing plant consultant, had been brewing constantly for 20 years.
“We had both been gradually improving our systems and methodology and spending more money and making more equipment,” Mitchell says. “When I left Microsoft, it was a great opportunity to take some time to work on it. We said, ‘Now’s the time. Let’s solve some problems.'”
Their complementary design skills — computing appliances and devices (Bill) and food automation (Jim) – came in handy as they began creating prototypes of an automatic home brewing machine. Along the way, they gained the expertise of ex-Microsoft hardware architect Avi Geiger, who joined as a third co-founder.
Last August, they opened a lab and fabrication facility in downtown Seattle to accelerate testing of prototypes and recipes. Their goal was to make the equivalent of a high-end espresso maker for the home brewer. Compared to coffee, of which about 70% that consumed is brewed at home, less than 1% of the beer consumed is brewed at home, Mitchell says. “There is just a tremendous opportunity there, if we can address the barriers to home-brewing,” he says.
Part of the traditional home brewing “brew day” includes five to eight hours of constant attention to detail during the setup, sterilization, mashing of grain, boiling and cleaning process. With the PicoBrew, you can pre-load water, malted barley and hops needed for your recipe into the machine. Hit “brew” and walk away. The Internet-connected PicoBrew adds the ingredients based on the chosen recipe; among those recipes included in its database is the “Mow the Damn Lawn” light lager from “Homebrewer of the Year” Annie Johnson of Sacramento, Calif.
After 3.5 hours, during which you can leave the machine unattended, the water that started in your keg has been turned into unfermented beer. Once the keg is cooled, yeast is added for fermentation, which usually takes a week. (Meanwhile, The PicoBrew parts can go into a dishwasher.) Then, you transfer your beer into bottles or another keg and add carbonation – either carbon dioxide or sugar, which creates carbonation naturally. Next stop: a drinking glass.
“One of the most important things the PicoBrew Zymatic does for you is give you back time,” Mitchell says. “Being able to make great beer at home reliably and repeatably should take minutes, not hours.”
And it helps eliminate mistakes, says Chris White, founder of White Labs, which produces yeasts used in beer. “There are some great home brewers out there, but they have to master their equipment and process. With the PicoBrew, the machine does much of that. I think the PicoBrewer will make it more fun and easy for people to make great all-grain beer, which will grow the home brewing hobby even more,” says White, who has been testing one. “The fermentation beers have been excellent.”
During the months of testing PicoBrew in the Seattle lab, local beer makers from nearby brewpubs and microbreweries came in to test the equipment and taste the results, Mitchell says. Many have shown interest in using the PicoBrew to test new recipes.
“When they get a new batch of hops or want to try other new ingredients, they don’t want to experiment in 500-gallon batches,” Mitchell says. “So they have to whip out the old home brewing rigs … and it’s hard to scale. They are excited about the possibilities for using PicoBrew for formulating batches and testing. Our thinking is if the pros can be happy with our product, then we can simplify it and make it amenable to anyone.”