Saturday, May 12, 2018

PicoBrew Zymatic - Five Months In

I received my PicoBrew Zymatic back in December 2017, and made my first batches right away.  It's now may 2018, and I've had about five months with it.  If you're considering purchasing one, my experiences might help you make your decision.

The Zymatic Has Made Me More Prolific

To date, I've made 22 batches with the Zymatic.  That's about half of what I made all of last year.  I've made a pale ale, two blonde ales, a malt liquor, a couple of Belgian Tripels, three Saisons, a couple of ESBs, three Belgian Dubbels, and some other styles.  Some of these were my own recipes, while others were published somewhere.  I would probably have brewed even more batches if I'd had the free time to do it.

The Zymatic Can Make Good Beer, But It Can Make Bad Beer, Too

Only a few of the beers went into competition. They've gotten scores ranging from an average of 20.6 (a Tropical Stout from a published recipe) to 36.5 (a Kentucky Common, my own recipe).  So if you're wondering whether the machine can produce good beer, the answer is yes - provided you give it a good recipe, ferment it properly, etc.  If you choose a bad recipe, have poor brewing hygiene, etc., you'll get bad beer.  The Zymatic won't make up for recipe issues or your own poor practices.

If you're a fairly new brewer, I would encourage you to use some other brewing systems that require more manual effort during the mash and boil before moving to the Zymatic.  It's important to have an understanding of how mashing, sparging, and boiling work before handing control over to the Zymatic - if you want to produce your best beer. The time I spent brewing on the kitchen stove, using the Grainfather, and cobbling together a sous vide based brewing setup were all helpful to me in understanding the brewing process. 

I had one batch (I forget which) where the Zymatic lost its WiFi connection briefly and decided to just stop running, rather than finish out the batch with the instructions it had.  I find that a bit crazy, and would warn you that if you have "wonky" WiFi or Ethernet at your place not to leave the machine completely unattended, or you could come home to a machine full of soured grain and/or wasted ingredients.

Be Careful With the Plastic Parts

In the five months I've had the Zymatic, the two major plastic parts (the step filter/tray and the sample port) both failed in warranty and had to be replaced.  The sample port cracked in the middle and began dripping wort during brewing.  The step filter developed a crack near the hole between the grain chamber and the hop chamber, which caused it to leak wort under the tray during mashing.  In both cases, PicoBrew support staff took excellent care of me and replaced the parts without hassle and at no charge.  They also provided suggestions to ensure that I wasn't doing anything to cause those parts to fail.

Both of the failed parts use clear acrylic plastic so you can see the liquid in them.  It's important to note that acrylic plastic tends to be fairly brittle and prone to cracking or breaking, so you should always treat these parts as though they could be easily damaged (though they're not truly fragile, it's a good idea to treat them like they are).  You should also never clean the Zymatic or its plastic parts with PBW (Powdered Brewer's Wash) as this will accelerate the deterioration of the plastic. Use PBW only in the metal keg and be sure to rinse it out thoroughly before reattaching it to the Zymatic.

Missing the Mark on Gravity and Volume

The online PicoBrew Recipe Crafter tool makes it fairly easy to "explain" to the Zymatic what you are brewing and how to brew it.  It provides you with calculations of the expected volume, gravity, and bitterness of the beer. 

In all of the batches I've made, the Zymatic has only once generated the exact amount of wort the recipe crafter said it would.  Typically, I will end up with anywhere from 1.8 to 2.3 gallons of wort at the end of the brewing process instead of the 2.5 gallons calculated by the recipe crafter.  The calculated gravity is generally within 10 Standard Gravity points of the calculated value, though it's rarely right on target - probably because of the volume differences.

When I finish brewing a batch, I measure the volume of wort and put a sample in my refractometer to check the gravity.  If volume is low and gravity is high, I'll add sterile distilled water to bring the gravity and volume closer to the calculated values. I do this because I want to ensure the right final flavor and bitterness profile.  If you don't dilute the beer to the intended gravity, you'll find that most of the beers you make in the Zymatic are far more bitter than they should be.  (Think of it as adding the hops needed to properly bitter a 2.5 gallon batch to a 2.0 gallon batch... that will make a fairly balanced brew turn out hop-forward. That might be fine for a Pale Ale or IPA, but it could spell competition disaster for an English, German, or Belgian style.)

Cleanup

Something that's kind of glossed over in the manuals is that you need to fully clean the keg after each brew.  That means using a wrench or socket to remove the keg posts, soak the posts and tubes in PBW, scrub and/or rinse the posts and tubes until the PBW is gone, and then reassemble the keg.  This is probably the most time-consuming part of cleanup with the Zymatic.  Getting residue off the sides of the keg usually means a long soak in hot PBW solution and some "elbow grease" with a keg brush scrubbing the sides of the keg.  This is followed by several rinses with hot water to ensure that the PBW is flushed out fully, so that it doesn't impact the step filter or sample port.  My arms are too thick to reach very far inside the keg, so hand-scrubbing generally isn't an option.

Cleaning the hop baskets is the next tricky bit. It's hard to get the hop particulate matter fully rinsed out of them.  Even then, the baskets tend to pick up some discoloration from the wort and hops. I find that soaking them in hot water and Dawn dish detergent helps reduce the discoloration in the hop baskets and even in the step filter, but completely removing it seems impossible.

Cleaning the step filter is the easy bit.  Dump or scoop out the grain, remove the metal filter screens, the "hop loaf" (as it's referred to), and dump out the leftover wort.  Rinse everything thoroughly in hot water and (after you finish your rinse and/or clean cycles for the machine itself), toss the step filter, screens, hop loaf, and hop baskets into your dishwasher with a Finish detergent tablet. 

Compared with the cleanup I've had in other brewing setups, it's much easier than most, and takes less time. This makes me more inclined to brew on days when my time may be limited.

Overall Impressions

Overall, the Zymatic has been a great purchase. I'm able to brew more often. Brew days are less work.  Cleanup is easier.  The beer produced by the machine is as good as any I've made in other systems.  It encourages me to experiment and re-do recipes.  It's allowed me to focus on recipe formulation and leave the process to the machine.

If I had it to do over again, I might buy the newer PicoBrew Z machines rather than the Zymatic, if only because that model is newer and can scale up modularly to larger batches.  The Z Series model wasn't available until after I'd purchased the Zymatic, though, so I made the best purchase I could at the time.

Apart from the foaming, gravity/volume issues, and some irritating quirks in the recipe crafter software, it's a very nice system and has made it easier to brew (and brew more often).  It won't make up for any shortcomings in the rest of your skill set or process, but if you're a competent brewer already, it will help you produce good beer more easily.

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