PicoBrew offers pods to brew beer like a cup of coffee

Stephen Pulvirent
Bloomberg News

Drinking beer isn't exactly tough work, but brewing it on your own can be a disaster. Ex-Microsoft Vice President Bill Mitchell is trying to fix the latter problem with PicoBrew, a company that makes self-contained home brewing machines. PicoBrew's latest, the Pico, uses prepackaged pods to brew beer like you'd make a single cup of coffee.

PicoBrew's original home brewer, the Zymatic, is large and still requires a pretty sophisticated knowledge of brewing to operate. The Pico is smaller at only 12 inches wide and brews 5-liter batches of beer instead of the Zymatic's 9.5-liter batches. It's about the size of a large microwave, and at 30 pounds it's heavy enough that you probably don't want to move it around too much. The real rub, though, is that the main unit doesn't contain the mini keg where the beer ends up, so you need space for that, too (and room in your fridge to cool it). It's a huge step up in practicality from the Zymatic, but still far from a countertop appliance.

The Pico is also significantly less expensive than the $2,000 Zymatic. For now, it's available via Kickstarter, where the price starts at $499, and the eventual retail price will be $1,000. If everything goes according to plan, the Pico will start shipping to Kickstarter customers in spring 2016, when the units will also become available for general sale.

The coolest thing about the Pico, though, is how you actually brew the beer. Instead of loading up loose ingredients according to a recipe, you use prepackaged pods of grains, hops, and yeast. Just fill the chamber with water when you start, load in the different pods at each step, dump in the yeast pack, and you're good to go. It's only a little more complicated than popping a Green Mountain K-Cup into your Keurig, and instead of a single cup of steaming coffee, you get a big batch of IPA to share. From the start, there are more than 50 breweries making PicoPak pods for the machine, including Rogue Ales and Elysian Brewing,and packs start from $19 per 5-liter batch.

For those who like to tinker, though, there are still opportunities. With any recipe, you can adjust fermentation and the hopping processes to change the alcohol content and International Bittering Units level. Brewing the beer takes just two hours, but once you add the yeast, you're looking at five to seven days for fermentation and carbonation. Making beer is never going to be a truly on-demand process. That's just not how fermentation works.

There's also a subscription-based marketplace ($99 per year) that gives you access to the full range of PicoPaks and lets you design your own to sell to other Pico users on the market for royalties. At least to start, the price sounds a little steep and the setup less than stellar, but if the user base reaches a critical mass, it could become a great place for discovering new brews.

PicoBrew isn't the only company trying to get you brewing in your kitchen, and most of the others are also using crowd-funding to do so. The MiniBrew (from $1,850 via Indiegogo) is small enough that it's a legitimate option for leaving next to your kettle and stand mixer. There's an app to help you with recipes, but you still have to purchase and measure out individual ingredients the old-fashioned way. If the big-silver-box form factor is more your style, the Brewie (from $1,599 via Indiegogo) is yet another option.

The PicoBrew Pico is a big step up in home-brew-on-order. But efficiency comes at the cost of original flavors, experimentation, and discovery and if those are your priorities, more old-fashioned methods may still be required.