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A Beginner's Guide to Homebrewing

Raise a glass on Saturday, May 5th not just to Cinco de Mayo but also to National Homebrew Day (which is officially May 7). This makes today a perfect time to toast the Pico C countertop brewing appliance from Seattle-based PicoBrew!

PicoBrew’s mission is to get the world brewing. Their kitchen countertop brewing machines promise brewing made simple, even for novice would-be brewers. “PicoPaks”of ready-to-brew ingredients, based on the recipes developed and brewed by hundreds of breweries worldwide, allow you to brew fresh craft beer in your own home. For more adventurous brewers, Freestyle PicoPaks allow you to develop your own recipe and be your own brew master.

I found the prospect of brewing for beginners appealing. I’d long thought of brewing my own beer. But all the equipment and the need for absolute precision in cleaning, temperature control, and timing was overwhelming. (And who among us doesn’t harbor a fear - however small - of setting the kitchen or garage on fire?)

The idea of home brewing made fast, clean, and convenient - like a Keurig for beer - sounded perfect for a beginner like me. Plus the concept of the PicoPak seemed to offer some assurance that the beer I produced might actually be drinkable.

In the spring of 2017, PicoBrew offered a brand new precision brewing appliance through Kickstarter. A sleek compact countertop machine, smaller than a microwave, that made brewing craft beer at home simple, relatively quick, and clean, with predictable high-quality results?Hel-lo! I jumped at the chance to back it. A lot of other people around the world were also eager: the Pico C is the most successful food Kickstarter of all time!

In late October, my Pico C arrived in a huge box of more boxes, including the comically labeled “Box of Air.”

Between the chaos of the holidays and being paralyzed with fear of all those boxes, it took me a few weeks to attempt my first brew.

When I finally took the plunge, it turned out I had nothing to fear. The brewing process is as simple and clean as advertised, and almost as fast. (The pitch, “from PicoPak to pint the whole process will take approximately 7-10 days” is an overstatement; we’ll get to that in a minute.)

The first step out of the box is getting Pico C connected to your home WiFi. There is a chip on each PicoPak that lets the appliance identify what you’re brewing, download the correct recipe, and handle brewing times and temperatures for you. A screen on the front of the Pico C walks you step by step through set-up, brewing, racking, cleaning, and other processes. You can even make minor adjustments to the bitterness (IBU) and ABV percentage of many PicoPaks to make your brew even more your own!

When brewing is done, your used PicoPak can be tossed right into your compost bin. ORif you’re a little more ambitious, you can open up the paper container, remove the spent grain, and cook with it. Using the spent grain is a feature that PicoBrew hasn’t really advertised, but spent grain is nutritious as well as delicious. I used this simple recipe from the Homebrewers Association to make delicious spent grain bread.

I even replaced some of the flour in my mom’s banana bread recipe with spent grain, which gave it greater texture and extra flavor.

Cleanup after brewing and racking the beer is as easy as advertised: put water in the right places and Pico C does the work for you. With the exception of one part, the components that Pico C doesn’t clean automatically can be cleaned and sanitized in your dishwasher!

Here’s the “bad” news: the concept of Pico C as the “Keurig of craft beer” falters in the fermentation and carbonation process. The selling point of the Keurig is the speed in which you can enjoy a fresh cup of coffee. With the Pico C, in the words of the unfortunately not-immortal Tom Petty, “The waiting is the hardest part.” (If that’s now your ear worm for the day, you’re welcome.) It’s not Pico C’s fault: there is simply no way to instantly ferment and carbonate beer. (Yet??)

So, how long are we talking? My first batch (Gourdgeous Harvest Ale—no, it does not have pumpkin in it) took about four weeks from brewing to drinking. Brewing took only a couple of hours. Fermentation took eight days because we keep our house on the cool side. (An optional accessory called the PicoFerm attaches to the top of the brew keg and monitors temperatures and pressure during fermentation and eliminates the guess work on when fermentation is done.) You can monitor your beer’s progress on the web through the Pico Brewhouse.

Cold-crashing the yeast took three more days. The real agony is that natural carbonation takes about twice the length of time of fermentation, or in my experience a little longer. If you want to be sipping that pint sooner, you can force carbonate it. Seven to ten days? Ehhhno.

So, after all that, how does beer brewed in the Pico C taste? I was pleasantly surprised with my first brew, the Gourdgeous Harvest Ale. As a brewing novice with absolutely no prior experience, I was not expecting it to be very good. But it was! Friends and family I shared it with agreed. It was a beautiful color, the flavors were on point. The quality was amazing. The natural carbonation, though slow, worked well.

A few more things to consider as you contemplate donating a chunk of precious kitchen counter space to a Pico C: it functions as a sous vide! I used the Pico C to make a copycat version of Starbucks sous vide egg bites, and they were excellent (though not quick to prepare). In addition to beer, you can brew Kombucha (not my thing, so I have not tried this). PicoBrew sells an add-on called the PicoStill, which allows you to distill your own essential oils and liquids. (Remember you must have a license to distill your own alcohol, so kids, don’t try this at home!)

I remain very impressed with the Pico C. There’s something very rewarding in drinking beer that I made myself! That being said, my most recent batch, Fire in the Hole, an Irish red ale from Beer Army Foundation, was less successful. It tastes great, but it didn’t carbonate properly. It’s a little flat, so I can see a CO2 regulator (for force carbonating) in my future.I anticipate also adding a second serving keg, so I don’t have to wait so long between brews. And I’m looking forward to creating my own recipe using the Freestyle PicoPak option!

All in all, the Pico C is a great introduction to home brewing for novice would-be brewers. If you’ve been nervous to brew on your own, I recommend giving it a try! More experienced brewers may be interested in the Pico Pro or the professional-level Z Series. PicoBrew is bringing brewing to the masses. Stay tuned to see what exciting new innovations they’ll be bringing to a kitchen near you!

Happy National Homebrew Day! Cheers!