In 2009, food writer Emma Christensen began brewing beer at home. She quickly grew to love each stage of the hours-long process, much of which is spent tending to a crock of boiling wort, or unfermented beer, and adding hops every few minutes. Over the course of making more than a hundred batches, she has become skilled at the art of turning barley, water, hops and yeast into beer.
So Christensen, like many homebrewers, is both amused and mystified by one of the latest innovations of the tech age: automated countertop brewing systems, sometimes referred to as beerbots. Like the homebrewer's version of the bread machine, beerbots have turned the gritty, sticky, ancient craft of brewing into a neat and tidy hobby that requires fairly minimal skill, an ability to follow simple directions and – of course – a smartphone or tablet.
"I just don't see the appeal," says Christensen, who has written three books on homebrewing. "You throw the ingredients into a box and it becomes beer. I'd rather go to the store and buy a six-pack of really good craft beer."
The level of automation varies among the different brands. For example, with the models from PicoBrew, probably the dominant company in the field, the human participant must transfer the beer from the fermenting vessel to the serving keg. The Brewie beerbot also requires similar liquid transferring. Other setups, like the forthcoming beerbots from iGulu and MiniBrew, are advertised as doing virtually everything automatically with minimal hands-on participation from a person. The available brewing system from WilliamsWarn likewise demands little attention from its operator, since every stage of the beer-making process occurs in one container, which is eventually tapped like a keg.
"You push a button, walk away for a week or two, and come back and pour yourself a beer," says Duke Geren, a craft beer enthusiast and homebrewer in Vancouver, Wash., who says he has little interest in brewing with a beerbot system, most of which are started and monitored via smartphone.
Bill Mitchell, co-founder of PicoBrew, explains that his company's "mission is to minimize the manual labor that's unrelated to the art and science of brewing." Each of his company's three different models, which have sold about 10,000 units in the past four years, simply eliminates, or makes easier, the steps of homebrewing where mistakes are most likely to occur.
"It's not like you're reconstituting dried beer," he says.
For example, PicoBrew's automated brewing systems carefully moderate temperatures through the brewing processes. They also automatically sterilize the equipment after brewing – a critical, and sometimes tricky, step in the process of consistently making good beer.
"The technology helps people make better beer by helping eliminate some of the technical defects that brewers often encounter," says Mitchell, who compares brewing with PicoBrew systems to cooking a meal on a modern stove rather than a campfire.
The Pico Pro unit and the newly released Pico C allow customers to make dozens of popular commercial beers at home, including Deschutes Brewery's Fresh-Squeezed IPA and Elysian Brewing Company's Dragonstooth Stout. Online customer reviews are mixed when it comes to how perfectly these recipes, which come to one's door in a so-called PicoPak, replicate the original beer.
Though these machines are marvels of technology, it isn't clear that using them fosters much in the way of personal brewing skills. Jeremy Marshall, Lagunitas Brewing Company's brewmaster, says he would probably never hire a new brewer whose only experience making beer has been with a beerbot.
"You probably don't learn very much brewing like this, except that if you put the grain and hops in this hole and press the button, you get beer," he says. By contrast, he has hired several assistant brewers whose only experience was homebrewing the traditional way, using a stove, bucket and large glass jug, or carboy.
Yet Marshall uses a beerbot himself. In Lagunitas' fermentation lab at its Petaluma, Calif., headquarters, Marshall and his staff have been running a PicoBrew Zymatic system since early spring, mainly to make test batches of beer with experimental grains.
In fact, of the roughly 2,400 Zymatic systems sold (for about $2,000 each) since the unit was introduced in 2013, about half, PicoBrew's Mitchell says, are now being used by commercial craft breweries.
Marshall believes beer machines may prove most serviceable in the long-term as research tools for professional brewers. He also expects them to remain popular among wealthy beer enthusiasts with too little time to brew in a crockpot and bucket. Traditional homebrewing can easily gobble up half a day in the first brewing stage alone. Beerbots, the advertisements claim, reduce brewing time to about two or three hours. Fermentation, the natural conversion of sugar into alcohol by yeast, takes at least several days no matter how one makes beer.
Geren thinks beerbots are too expensive to replace old-school homebrewing on a large scale. Whereas a traditional five-gallon (19-liter) homebrewing setup may cost about $200, the most affordable beerbot model on the market is the Pico C, which the company's website lists at $549. The Pico Pro runs about $800. Each one makes just five liters of beer.
"For the cost of the unit and $20 to $30 for the ingredient packs, you're brewing some pretty expensive beer at that point," he says.
Because the WilliamsWarn system dispenses the beer from the same container in which it was fermented, "you're sitting on that one beer until you drink it all," Mitchell, at PicoBrew, notes.
Christensen believes the cost of the average beerbot must drop significantly if the products are going to become common household appliances. She believes automated brewing units are now "at the precipice" between failing as a concept and going mainstream.
"As a food editor, I've tested a lot of products like these, and I have seen so many gadgets come and go," she says. "I feel like it could go either way with these."
She recalls when sous vide machines first hit the market.
"They were so big, and I thought, 'No way – these won't survive,' " she says. "And now lots of people have them, and I own one, too."