Raise your glasses to home-brewed beer

The creators of Brewbot (from left), Mr Chris McClelland, Mr Jonny Campbell, Mr Ali Sisk and Mr Kieran Graham.
The creators of Brewbot (from left), Mr Chris McClelland, Mr Jonny Campbell, Mr Ali Sisk and Mr Kieran Graham.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

Brothers Bill and Jim Mitchell shared a passion for home-brewed beer, but when they shared a recipe, the pair could never seem to get the same result. Although Mr Jim Mitchell's Angry Amber was his best beer, Mr Bill Mitchell could not replicate it, even though their brewing systems were largely identical.

It is a common problem for home brewers. Producing a consistent- tasting batch of beer depends on the fickle brewing process, where a subtle change involving the barley and hops can result in different products.

Mr Bill Mitchell, a former Microsoft executive, set out to apply science to the home-brewing process.

The result, they claim, is the Pico, a machine with a passing resemblance to a microwave. It brews 5-litre batches of beers after the exact ingredients are fed via pods into the device, much like coffee being loaded into a Nespresso machine.

The 14kg machine works by loading water with PicoPaks of ingredients and then brewing for about two hours.

The beer recipes come from various breweries, but the bitterness, thickness and alcohol volume can be adjusted at home.

After the brewing process, the beer is transferred to a keg to ferment for about a week.

The aim, says Seattle-based Bill Mitchell, is to engage amateurs by brewing consistent beer each time and eliminating the frequent possibility of "bad batches".

"You don't know what went wrong. If you are at all scientific, it drives you nuts and usually for most people, that is it."

About 2,000 of the machines have been pre-ordered and are expected to ship from April. The early-bird price was US$500 (S$695) and this is expected to rise to US$999 at retail.

The PicoPaks are available from the company's website, among them pale ales, porter and a strong English bitter. The pods cost from US$18 to US$30, meaning substantial savings for high-end beers and minor savings for mainstream drinks.

"If you go to a commercial chain and you buy a Heineken mini keg, those cost about US$19 or US$20 each. If you are making a beer like that, the PicoPak would probably cost you US$16 or US$17," he says.

The growing interest in craft beers - Mr Bill Mitchell says there were one million home brewers in the United States when they started their company, PicoBrew, in 2010 - has created a demand for niche beers from around the world.

In Belfast, Northern Ireland, where many pubs are tied to suppliers and their particular range of drinks, the limited selection of craft beers on offer led to the creation of Brewbot.

The 1.2m square brewing machine made from stainless steel and wood produces 30 litres of beer each time. The four founders aim to sell the device to bars, restaurants and offices to create and brew their own beer.

Existing brewers have also bought the machines to make test batches of experimental recipes, while some companies station them in offices for staff to enjoy.

Ingredients can be ordered and recipes can be downloaded. If they prefer, home brewers can create their own blends.

Brewbotting a batch of beer can take between four and six hours. The beer then ferments elsewhere for two to four weeks. The Brewbot can then be used to make further batches of 90 bottles.

An app notifies the user of the different stages of the brewing process after the recipe is chosen. As the machine is not totally autonomous, the app tells the user when he needs to step in.

The Belfast-based firm has sold 150 units so far to bars, restaurants and companies as well as breweries.

Brewbot chief executive Chris McClelland says the machines allow restaurants to experiment with new types of beer.

At £6,900 (S$13,900), the machine is beyond the budget of most home brewers and is aimed more at a commercial market.

Asked if it is not easier to just buy a crate of bottled beer, he replies: "Do people have that attitude with their food?"


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 14, 2016, with the headline 'Raise your glasses to home-brewed beer'. Print Edition | Subscribe