Skip to main content

Two Months with the PicoBrew Zymatic

I received my PicoBrew Zymatic in late December 2017.  Since then, I have brewed 12 batches of beer in it.  I've developed a reasonable understanding of its good and bad points.

On the positive side, it's insanely easy to brew with it.  Measure your ingredients, load them into the system, load the recipe, hit a button, and wait.  It's mostly a hands-off process from there.  When it's finished (and because I don't want to ferment in the corny keg), I transfer the beer to a kettle, chill it, then transfer to a fermenter. This process takes about 20-30 minutes.  Cleanup is easier than with my previous system, and parts of that are automated as well.  The Zymatic gives off a "brewery" aroma if you're within about 10-20 feet of it, but is undetectable outside that range (at least to me).  The beer coming out of the Zymatic is as good as any I've made elsewhere.

On the negative side, the machine has its limits. Compared with other brewing systems, it's not as efficient.  Depending on the recipe, grain crush, and mash profile used, I've seen brew house efficiencies as low as 55.3% and as high as 76.4%.  With The Grainfather, I don't recall ever seeing an efficiency below 70%. So you need more grain to hit a gravity target with the Zymatic than with The Grainfather. That combines with the fact that the Zymatic has a 9-pound grain limit (versus The Grainfather's 20 pound limit).  This means the bigger, higher-gravity beers aren't as easy to brew with the Zymatic.  They're possible, but you're going to be resorting to things like adding malt extract, doing reiterated mashes, or boiling down the wort to increase the gravity.

The Zymatic is also unpredictable in its finished volume amounts.  Despite specifying a 2.5 gallon volume in the recipe crafting tool, I frequently end up with 2.1 to 2.2 gallons of wort.  This isn't a big deal, but if you were planning on that extra (approximately) half gallon for some reason, you'll be frustrated.

Gravity is also somewhat unpredictable, but if you crush the grain yourself (in the 0.045 range) and measure the water carefully, you'll come out pretty close.  For my last few batches, I've seen:

  • Belgian Single:  Estimated gravity 1.047 SG, actual 1.050 SG
  • Belgian Dubbel: Estimated gravity 1.075 SG, actual 1.067 SG
  • Saison: Estimated gravity 1.055 SG, actual 1.058 SG
  • Tripel: Estimated gravity 1.085 SG, actual 1.086 SG
  • Saison 2: Estimated gravity 1.068 SG, actual 1.065 SG
With the exception of the Dubbel, those all came within 3 points of the estimated gravity. I'm not sure why the Dubbel came out so low. Maybe I didn't measure the water as carefully.

Probably the worst thing about the Zymatic is that it can overflow its grain tray during the mash if you are not staying on top of it.  A mash that brushes up against the 9 pound limit, or one that includes a significant amount of wheat or oats, or just giving it a bit too much water, can result in a real mess.  The very first batch I made, their Pico Pale Ale kit, foamed excessively out of the grain tray, overflowed the drip tray, and made a huge mess on the floor that took a while to mop up. I had only left the machine alone about 10-20 minutes.  Two other batches of the 12 I've made have had foaming or overflow problems as well.  One of those was relatively minor and resulted in a tiny puddle on the table.  The other was huge. It covered most of the table top, almost the entire shelf underneath the table top, and a path across the basement floor to the drain, where it puddled up a fair amount.  That took a while to clean up.  I've made it a habit to check on the machine about every 10 minutes during the first 30-40 minutes of mashing, just to watch for potential foaming or overflow issues.  Making sure the machine is level, that you're measuring water carefully and not getting too close to the grain limit will help.

The other frustrating thing about using the Zymatic is the recipe editor. You have two mash profiles by default - a normal single infusion mash and a high efficiency mash. The normal infusion mash is incredibly inefficient. That's the batch I had 55% efficiency on.  The high-efficiency profile delivers on its promise but can only be edited in their "advanced" mash profile editor.  That editor is easy enough to work with, but there's a catch. If you change the profile and save it, then go back to change an ingredient (e.g., to correct the alpha value of the hops), the changes in the advanced editor are discarded.  If you're not aware of this quirk, you'll find that the mash doesn't behave as you intended (it goes back to the default).  This is a huge bug that I'd think PicoBrew would fix, but they don't.

Still, I give the device credit. It's allowed me to focus on recipe development, to brew on days when I couldn't afford the time to stand over a mash and kettle, and to easily make smaller batches (and thus avoid accumulating too much homebrew). Despite its frustrations, I am overall happy with it.


Popular posts from this blog

Things I've Learned Brewing with The Grainfather, Part 2

In the last post, I shared an overview of The Grainfather, recommended equipment to use with it, and an overview of the brewing process.  In this installment, I'm going to talk specifically about mashing and sparging. Having brewed over a dozen batches with it, I'm finally becoming very comfortable with the device, the mash process, and how to get what I want out of it. I don't consider myself a "master" of it yet, though. For those who have never done all-grain brewing, I want to provide a quick overview of the mash process itself. Mashing - With or Without The Grainfather The goal of mashing is to turn the starches in the grain into sugars. More specifically, you want to turn the starches into a mix of fermentable and unfermentable sugars that provide the flavor profile associated with the beer you are brewing. A sweeter beer might warrant more unfermentable sugars. A more dry beer will demand few unfermentable sugars. To a great extent, controlling the

Brewing with The Grainfather, Part 3 - Cleaning and Overall Thoughts

In Part 1 of this series, I introduced The Grainfather and discussed how to use it for mashing and sparging.  In Part 2, we talked about boiling and chilling the wort with The Grainfather and its included counterflow chiller.  In this final segment, we'll discuss cleanup and overall thoughts about the device and its usage. Cleanup Once you've pumped the wort from The Grainfather into your fermenter and pitched your yeast, you're well on your way to a delicious batch of homebrew.  Unfortunately, you've still got some cleanup work to do. The cleanup process in my experience will take 20-30 minutes.  It involves the following tasks: Removing and discarding the grain from The Grainfather's grain basket Cleaning the grain basket, kettle, recirculation tube, and wort chiller Cleaning all the other implements used in brewing (scale, scoops, mash paddle, etc.) At the end of the brewing process, there will be hops bags (if you used them), grain and other residu

Yellow Label Angel Yeast vs. Typical Brewing Yeast

I currently have my second batch of rice wine fermenting with the "magical" yellow-label Angel Yeast from China, and wanted to share some of the more unusual aspects of using it.  If you've never seen or used this yeast, I suspect you're not alone.  It ships in a 500 gram package that looks like this: What makes it "yellow label" is that yellow box you see in the upper left corner of the package.  This implies that it's yeast for distilling (though you do not need to have a still or distill the output to use it).  As I understand it, inside the package is a mix of yeast and other materials which will convert starch into sugar and directly ferment it, without the need for a traditional mash step.  This can radically shorten your brewing time.  For my most-recent batch of rice wine, I heated 3 gallons of water to 155F, poured it over 13+ pounds of uncooked rice straight out of the bag, let that soak for an hour, rehydrated some of this yeast in warm water,