Four years ago, Bill Mitchell spent his days helping run Microsoft’s (MSFT) Windows division and his nights struggling to craft the perfect home brew. After putting his kids to bed, the Microsoft vice president would stay up cleaning heavy pots and fermenting beer. No two attempts ever worked out the same, and he eventually called his brother Jim, a food scientist, to talk about a way to simplify the process using technology. The result, the Mitchells say, is the first fully automatic, all-grain tabletop brewing machine—one that can make beer to specifications, relatively quickly and with minimal effort.
In 2010, Bill Mitchell quit his day job to develop the company, PicoBrew; co-founder Avi Geiger, another Microsoft veteran, did the same the following year. Jim Mitchell, who scaled back his consulting work to make PicoBrew his full-time gig in 2013, says his goal was to figure out how to bring home beer brewers into this century. “They do things this way because they’ve always been done this way,” he says. Now the first models of the $1,700 PicoBrew Zymatic are being shipped to the company’s Kickstarter backers, Bill Mitchell says. At least 25 of the hundreds of Zymatics ordered so far will be hand-built by some of PicoBrew’s 6 employees and 14 interns in their office on a residential street in Seattle.
The Zymatic is a stainless steel box about the size of a large microwave. It has a plastic drawer divided into five chambers, one for malted barley and other grains, four for hops. Attached is a five-gallon Cornelius keg, a home-brewing standard that holds water and, later, the beer while it ferments. After the beer lover programs in a recipe from a PC or mobile device using PicoBrew’s cloud software, water cycles from the keg to the grain chamber, and then passes through the hops chambers to add bitterness, flavor, and aroma. The mixture filters back into the keg, where the user adds yeast before detaching and storing the keg to ferment for about a week. The machine’s software is designed to maintain a steady water level and precise temperature, the trickiest elements for brewers to control.
The Mitchells, whose food scientist grandfather created Tang and Pop Rocks, are targeting the 1.2 million people the American Homebrewers Association estimates are making beer at home. Some professional brewers have also expressed interest in using the machine to refine their formulas. Matt Lincecum, the owner of Fremont Brewing in Seattle, says the test batches he makes in standard microbrewery tanks cost him $1,500 to $2,000 each; with the PicoBrew hardware, it’s about $3. Lincecum can set the Zymatic and more or less leave it be. With most home-brew equipment, “you have to sit there and baby-sit the thing for eight hours,” he says.
The software lets brewers add ingredients such as elderflower and bitter orange peel and predicts a given recipe’s alcohol content and bitterness based on hundreds of test batches. Some of the preset recipes come from PicoBrew’s brewmaster, Annie Johnson, who says she was skeptical of the technology until she tried it.
Price of PicoBrew’s Zymatic tabletop brewing machine
Bill Mitchell says he funded the company with $170,000 in cash and loans and began to expand in 2012, when the three co-founders hired their first employee, his college-age daughter. PicoBrew completed a $400,000 angel seed round last May and took in more than $660,000 from its November Kickstarter campaign, exceeding its goal in a day. He says he’s raising an additional small funding round from seed investors but wouldn’t disclose the target.
There’s at least one other company building a high-tech automated beermaker: Belfast-based Cargo, which will begin shipping its Brewbot in May, according to the project’s principal developer, Jonny Campbell. The Brewbot stands almost 4 feet tall, much bigger than the Zymatic, and costs £1,700 (about $2,855).
Bill Mitchell says he’s working to lower the price of the Zymatic, which he hopes can become as common as a home espresso maker or bread machine. Reactions so far have kept him optimistic: When managing Windows, he says, “you didn’t get a lot of people saying, ‘That’s awesome.’ You get that with this machine.”