Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Picobrew Zymatic and Pico Pale Ale

Pico Pale Ale
I was fortunate enough to be able to purchase a new Picobrew Zymatic automated brewing machine a few weeks ago for myself.  Today, I unboxed it and began brewing the sample kit included with it.  The sample recipe, Pico Pale Ale, was one of the easiest brews I've had in years.

The machine shipped in four boxes.  Two of the boxes contained 5-gallon Cornelius kegs.  One contained the plastic tray, hoses, power cord, and other items, along with the recipe kit.  The last box contained the machine itself.

Setup was fairly easy.  Remove everything from the boxes and confirm that it's all there.  Remove the plastic film covering the stainless steel parts of the Zymatic.  Attach the in and out liquid hoses to the correct fittings on the side of the unit, after inserting a nylon washer.  Attach the ball lock connectors to the appropriate posts on the keg.  Assemble the tray and insert it into the unit.  Register the device on the Zymatic web site, then turn it on.  Connect it to your WiFi or Ethernet network so that it can reach out to Picobrew's servers on the Internet. It's ready to go.

Before the first use, you are advised to rinse the unit.  To do this, you pour 3.5 gallons of hot water into the keg. Disconnect the gray "out" ball lock connector and connect it to the cleaning tube provided.  Drop the tube into a bucket.  Use the menu control to select the Rinse program and allow it to run to completion. This takes about 5 minutes, give or take a couple of minutes.

Pico Pale Ale Recipe

From what I can gather, this is basically a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale clone recipe.

Pico Pale Ale consists of the following ingredients:
  • 6 pounds, 6.7 ounces of American 2-Row Pale Ale Malt
  • 12.16 ounces of Crystal 60L Malt
  • 0.2 ounces of Magnum hops (unknown AA level) at 60 min.
  • 0.39 ounces of Perle hops (unknown AA level) at 15 min.
  • 0.34 ounces of Cascade hops (unknown AA level) at 10 min.
  • 1.08 ounces of Cascade hops (unknown AA level) at 5 min.
  • Fermentis Safale US-05 yeast
The Picobrew web site reports the following characteristics for this beer:
  • Style: American Pale Ale
  • OG: 1.053 (I achieved 14.5 Brix or 1.061 SG)
  • FG: 1.013
  • IBU: 40
  • SRM: 12
  • Starting water: 3.57 gallons (good luck measuring that exactly)
  • Batch Size: 2.5 gallons
The mash schedule was a single-step infusion mash at 152F for 90 minutes.  There was no mash out and there is no sparging with this device.

The boil was 60 minutes at 207F, and immediately followed the mash.

The instructions recommend chilling to 65F and keeping it there for 10 days before kegging or bottling.

Preparing to Mash

Because this was a kit beer, I didn't have to measure or crush the grain or hops.  I assembled the tray by placing the mesh on the bottom, then the hops/adjunct tray, and the four hop filter boxes.  The grain was placed into the large section of the tray.  Each hops addition was placed in its filter box and the lid snapped onto it.  Another filter covers the grain, then a plastic lid goes above that. The lid has holes cut into it for the water arm to dispense water through.  I doubt it took more then 10 minutes to do this the first time, and I suspect future batches won't even take that long.

You slide the tray full of grain and hops into the unit until it sort of clicks into place.  

Next, you place hot water in the keg.

Then, you visit the Picobrew web site to add the Pico Pale Ale recipe into your collection. It is then transferred to the Zymatic over the Internet.  

Mashing

Using the menu button, you select the recipe and press the selection button.  The Zymatic begins drawing in the water and heating it to mash temperature.  Once the water is at mash temperature, the Zymatic floods the grain compartment of the tray and circulates the wort between the tray, the keg, and the heating elements inside the Zymatic.

Mashing the Grain

Tray and Menu Display
You can watch the mash temperatures on the Picobrew web site from wherever you are. I was able to do this with an Android phone, Chromebook, and Windows 10 PC equally well.  I have no reason to think you couldn't do it with an iPhone, iPad, Macintosh, Linux, or other device with web access.

Mash temperature, boil temperature, and hops ("boil adjunct") addition timings for the batch

Near the end of the mash, I noticed a drop-off in wort temperature, which concerned me.  I went downstairs to find that a good amount of wort had leaked out of the Zymatic, filled its drip tray, overflowed that, poured across the table, and onto the floor in a large puddle.  It appears that although I thought I had positioned the tray properly, the Zymatic must have had trouble getting the wort pumped into it at some point during the mash.  I'd estimate that I probably lost about 20 ounces of wort without realizing it.

Foaming out of the tray

Puddle of wort visible between left-hand corner of the Zymatic and the corner of the table

Regardless, it was a very easy mash process.

Boil

As soon as the Zymatic has removed all the wort from the grain that it can, it begins heating the wort to boiling.  In the context of the Zymatic, a "boil" is 206F rather than the usual 212F.  The creators claim that this is an appropriate temperature and chosen intentionally.  I'm not going to argue until I see the beer coming out of it.

As the Zymatic heats the wort to boiling, it circulates it between the device and the keg.  When the wort reaches boiling temperature, the Zymatic pumps the wort through the hops filter boxes.  To simulate hop additions to a kettle, it flows wort into one filter box, then when the second hops addition is needed, it flows wort through the first two boxes.  When it's time for the third addition, wort flows through three of the four boxes... and so on.

When the boil is over, the Zymatic begins pumping the wort out of itself and into the kettle.  In theory, this should leave you with about 2.5 gallons in the fermenter.

Note:  At this point, the wort is essentially still at 206F (or near that).  The Zymatic does not include any manner of wort chiller with it.  They give you two options.  One is to leave the wort out in the open air until it reaches a yeast-safe temperature (typically overnight).  The other is to dunk the keg in an ice water bath until it chills to a yeast-safe temperature (usually 20-30 minutes they say). 

For this maiden batch, I decided not to bother with an ice bath.  

Fermentation

For fermentation, you have a couple of options.  One is to leave the wort in the keg, attach the rubber lid, and insert an airlock.  The wort can ferment in the keg and you could then pressurize it and serve it from there if you wanted.  If you prefer to bottle your beer, you'll need to rack it to a bottling bucket, prime it, and bottle it.  

Because I wanted to be able to brew again soon, I sanitized two fermenters and poured the wort out of the keg into one of them.  This also helped aerate the wort a bit, which will help the yeast grow.  I left the fermenter sitting on the cold basement floor to chill it a bit.  When it reaches yeast-pitching temperature, I'll pitch the packet of US-05 yeast into it and seal the fermenter tight.

Fermentation is expected to take about 10 days.

Thoughts on the Zymatic

Despite the spilling of a bit of wort, this was one of the easiest brew days I've had in a long time.  Assembling the Zymatic took less time than reading the instructions on how to assemble it.  

Loading the tray went fairly quickly and easily.  

After that, the brewing process was incredibly simple.  Scroll to the recipe, press the button, and wait.  About four hours later you have a keg full of hot wort.

Cleanup was also quite simple. Scoop out the grain area of the tray for disposal.  Remove the hop boxes.  Rinse everything well with PBW and hot water.  Dump out the hops and dispose of them.  Rinse and clean the hop filter boxes.  Load the empty tray back in the unit.  Fill the other keg with hot water and run a rinse cycle, pumping the water into a bucket for disposal.  It probably took me 10-15 minutes at most to complete.

I know there are lots of folks out there who consider a device like this to be "cheating" when brewing.  I get it.  There's a lot more art and skill involved in keeping a mash tun at the right temperature, managing a boil by hand, and so on.  I've been there.  I've done it.  

I suspect that if a brewer from 100-200 years ago saw a modern home brewer with a nice propane flame that heats steadily, lab-accurate thermometers, electric pumps to move the wort, etc., they'd think that home brewer was cheating.  After all, they had no iodine to check for conversion.  They had to use wooden or coal fires to heat the wort, use hot water infusions to keep the mash at temperature, and so on.  

I've reached a point with my home brewing that I'm hitting my gravity and volume targets without any automation. I'm creating beers that have won medals in competition.  What I'm not so good at is recipe formulation.  The Zymatic will allow me to try very subtle recipe changes and see how they affect the beer, without worrying that maybe I mashed a little too hot this time or a little too long because I got distracted.  That will help me be a better brewer overall.  When I get a recipe I love, I'll be able to scale that up and make a bigger batch on The Grainfather or some other system.

If you want to call me a cheater, go ahead.  I just may not share my beer with you.  Or maybe I will anyway. I'm like that.

Apart from the wort spillage, which was most likely due to tray misalignment, this was the most fun I've had doing a batch of beer in a while.  Setup was easy, brewing was easier, and cleanup was a cinch.  It makes me want to brew almost ever day.  That can't be a bad thing, can it?

I will no doubt need to think about wort chilling for a while.  There are a number of approaches that could work well with the Picobrew Zymatic setup.  There is a company that sells a wort chiller designed to fit inside a Corny keg.  That would make chilling the beer easy after brewing.  

There are plate chillers out there, too.  The Zymatic does have a menu setting for chilling wort, where it draws the wort from the keg and pumps it out the other hose to wherever you want it to go.  This could be a counter flow chiller, plate chiller, or some other device.  The catch would be adapting that ball lock connector to push the wort through the chiller.

Two things I'm pretty sure of.  I don't want to leave wort out all night on its own to chill naturally. That will cause chill haze in most beers and could run a risk of contamination.  

I also don't want to deal with ice baths.  Having to remember to get a bag of ice before every brew, store it somewhere until I need it, and deal with lugging the Corny keg in and out of it, does not sound like the "life of ease" the Zymatic is supposed to bring with it.

Post-Mortem and Other Notes

The Zymatic has made me more excited about brewing than I've been for a while. Being able to easily make small batches means I'll have less beer sitting around (though mine tends to disappear pretty quickly with friends and family).  Smaller batches means a faster bottling day.  Automation means being able to brew even when I can't be there to monitor the process to completion.  I'll be able to brew even when I'm on-call for work. That's something I couldn't do before, because a badly-timed call would mean walking away from the mash or kettle at a critical moment - missing a mash step or hop addition.

As for this recipe, I'm not a big Pale Ale fan so I can't say I'm excited to taste it.  I'm happy that it came out higher in gravity than expected.  I'm happy that it was easy and fun to make.  It was also pretty easy to clean up after.  So as long as it turns out drinkable, I'll be happy.

12/24/2017:  A quick taste from the fermenter showed a relatively dry, significantly hoppy aroma and flavor.  Airlock activity has slowed significantly, so I will likely be bottling the beer in about a week.

12/27/2017:  The beer has definitely finished fermentation. The gravity measured 1.013 SG on a hydrometer, which corresponds to 6.3% ABV given the starting gravity. This is a bit higher than the 5.4% expected in the PicoBrew Recipe Crafter software.  The beer was bottled with carbonation drops in the interest of time.

01/03/2018:  Last night I refrigerated the first bottle of the beer. Today I opened it.  It poured with an incredible amount of foam, enough to almost fill the glass. When the foam finally reincorporated, I was able to finish pouring very gently and take the photo at the top of the post.  The beer is a cloudy orange-brown color with a thick, lasting head of foam that is lumpy and whipped-cream-like.  Because the beer hasn't been bottled long, the aroma is a mix of diacetyl and hops.  The flavor starts intensely hoppy, turns sweet malty and a bit buttery (due to the diacetyl), and finishes with a lingering and somewhat harsh bitterness.  As with most Pale Ales, I don't get much from this. The flavor has some very resin-like elements to it, with maybe a touch of pine and grapefruit. I'm sure my friends who love IPAs and Pale Ales will enjoy it. Me, not that that much. Then again, it's mostly a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale clone and I'm fond of the original beer either.

02/26/2018:  A couple of weeks ago, a friend gave me a case of Sierra Nevada beers which included their Pale Ale. I decided this would be a good time to do a side-by-side comparison of the two.  First, a visual comparison:


The two beers are approximately the same color. The Pico Pale Ale is perhaps a touch darker, but not much.  The Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is clearer, but I made no effort to clarify the Pico Pale Ale with any finings, so that's no surprise.  The head on both beers is the same color, but the head on Sierra Nevada's brew vanished almost immediately, while the head on the Pico Pale Ale lasted for well over a minute before collapsing into the beer.  The Pico brew left behind a cloud of spotty lacing in the glass.

In terms of aroma, the Sierra Nevada brew has a resin and pine aroma.  The Pico Pale Ale is a little yeasty, but has some of the same pine and resin as the Sierra Nevada brew. Had the Pico Pale been dry-hopped, the aromas might have been similar.

Mouthfeel for the Sierra Nevada beer is thinner than the Pico Pale Ale, which comes across more full bodied and creamy.

The flavor of the Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is bitter, very slightly sweet.  The Pico Pale Ale is slightly more sweet and slightly less bitter.  That said, if you were not comparing these beers side by side as I am doing right now, it would be difficult to tell the difference.  If you wanted to get the two recipes closer together, consider mashing at a slightly lower temperature, dry hopping the beer before bottling, using gelatin finings to clear it up a bit, reducing the bottling sugar, and maybe increasing the hop load very slightly (though that may not be necessary if the mash temperature is lowered a degree or two).

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