Friday, December 7, 2018

A Year with the PicoBrew Zymatic

During Black Friday 2017, I was offered the opportunity to purchase a PicoBrew Zymatic at a significant discount. Although I'd already had (and been generally happy with) iMake's The Grainfather, I didn't brew as often as I wanted to with it. Although The Grainfather can produce some great beer (and I've got medals to prove it), the time commitment is hard to take. I pretty much had to stay home and watch over it for 5-8 hours, and attend to it constantly. For me, the Zymatic represented the opportunity to brew at times when I couldn't necessarily be there to change mash temperatures, sparge the grain, or drop things into the brew kettle. It would also mean that I could experiment more. Recipes I'd thought looked interesting (but didn't want to give up a day to try) would suddenly mean a few minutes' work to put together and a few more to load into the machine. Needless to say, I took the deal.

The Zymatic - mid-brew

Can you make good beer in the Zymatic?

In a word, yes. I have a ribbon from the Ohio State Fair to back that claim up. The second beer I ever made in the Zymatic (a Belgian Tripel) took fourth place at the 2018 Ohio State Fair's Homebrewing Competition. Considering how competitive that category is, taking fourth place with a beer brewed on a system I was only beginning to figure out should tell you all you need to know.

What is it Like to Brew in the Zymatic?

The brewing process with the Zymatic is pretty straightforward:

  • Log in to the PicoBrew web site and enter your recipe details, configuring the advanced mash settings if appropriate.
  • Measure and crush your grains, then load them into the Step Filter ("tray")
  • Measure your hops, then load them into the hop baskets.
  • Load the hop "loaf" tray and hop baskets into the Step Filter
  • Put the lid on the Step Filter and insert it into the Zymatic
  • Measure out the appropriate amount of water per the PicoBrew Recipe Crafter online and load that into the insulated keg attached to the Zymatic
  • Turn on the Zymatic and wait for it to connect to the Internet.
  • Using the menu dial/button, select the recipe you want to brew, then press the button to start the brewing process.
  • For the next few hours, the Zymatic will brew the beer according to the recipe you entered online. As it brews, the Zymatic will log temperature information on the web so that you can track the status of the brew.
  • When the brew is finished, the Zymatic transfers the hot wort into the insulated keg and begins beeping.
  • At this point you have to chill the wort to a yeast-safe temperature. There are many ways you can do this:
    • You can wait for the beer to cool naturally, maybe even placing it outside in the winter or into a refrigerator or freezer. This will take a long time and the beer will probably not be clear (if you care about that), but it will work.
    • You can use the PicoBrew recommended approach. This is to remove the insulation from the keg (which is a bit risky since it's filled with near-boiling liquid), dunk it in a bath of ice water, an recirculate the wort in and out of the keg. This will take minutes, and the resulting beer should be relatively clear when finished.
    • I took the approach of pumping the beer into a sanitized kettle, then using a sanitized immersion chiller to cool it. This took at most 5-10 minutes to do, given the cold ground water temperature and the small amount of wort relative to the chiller size.
    • Later, I rigged a counter flow chiller up and used that, pumping wort directly into the fermenter through the chiller. This was also relatively quick, and reduced the chance for infection, but didn't chill the wort quite as well as the immersion chiller.
    • You could probably rig up a number of other options, too, like a plate chiller or an immersion chiller that fits inside the keg the Zymatic uses.
  • With the wort chilled, you transfer it to a fermenter and pitch your yeast. 
Although that process looks pretty long, it doesn't require tons of manual involvement. Recipe entry takes a few minutes, depending on how much tinkering you do. Loading the water, grain, and hops usually took me 10-20 minutes depending on how well organized I was. Chilling the wort usually took me 5-15 minutes. So my hands-on involvement for a batch was easily under an hour in most cases.

Cleanup of the Zymatic


Once you've finished a brew, cleanup of the Zymatic is a bit more involved than brewing, in my opinion. The cleanup process (as I did it) worked something like this:

  • Remove the Step Filter tray from the Zymatic. 
  • Dump the hops basket contents into a vessel for disposal.
  • Scoop the grain out of the tray into the vessel for disposal.
  • Rinse out the tray, hop baskets, and screens using hot water until no visible residue of the hops or grain is present.
  • Place the screens back into the tray and put the tray in the Zymatic.
  • Clean the keg using hot water, PBW, and a brush. Rinse thoroughly so no PBW is left.
  • Load a vessel with hot water and attach the cleaning wands to the Zymatic in and out water lines. 
  • Start a rinse cycle, which takes about 10-12 minutes.
  • Start a second rinse cycle.
  • Dump the water out of the Step Filter and rinse it again.
  • Load a Finish dishwasher detergent tab into the Step Filter, atop the hop compartment screen.
  • Start the "New Clean Beta" cleaning program, which runs for about 2-3 hours. You can leave the machine at this point.
  • When the cleaning program is finished, dump out the keg contents (dirty water), and the Step Filter contents (dirty water).
  • Rinse out the keg and fill it with hot water.
  • Rinse out the Step Filter and put the screens in it.
  • Run the final rinse cycle in the cleaning program.
This process takes about 3 hours of elapsed time. The hands-on involvement is about 15-20 minutes at the start of the cleaning process, and another 15-20 minutes at the end.

The Zymatic documentation (and the PicoBrew web site) gives conflicting information on cleaning processes. The manual suggests doing a cleaning like the above after every 5-6 brews or after a single high-gravity brew. Zymatic support folks will recommend a cleaning cycle every 2-3 brews. My experience was that doing a cleaning cycle every 2-3 brews resulted in some internal clogging after some 25-30 batches. It took a double-digit number of cleaning and soaking cycles after that to get the Zymatic brewing smoothly again. For that reason, I began doing the above after each and every brew, as I wanted to avoid any further clogging issues.

This cleaning process took longer than the cleaning process for The Grainfather. The Grainfather's cleaning process involved rinsing and scrubbing the kettle with PBW, then circulating hot PBW solution through the machine for a while. After that, you rinsed everything and you were pretty much done. It took about 20-30 minutes most of the time, but it was a bit back-breaking because of the bending over and lifting/dumping of the machine.


Why Should You Buy (or Not Buy) the Zymatic?

Just is a Ford Mustang is not the right car for every driver (e.g., a family with lots of kids isn't going to have enough room), the Zymatic is not the right system for every brewer. In my opinion, the following are the reasons you should consider the Zymatic:

  • You're experienced with all-grain brewing. (The Zymatic insulates you from much of the mash and boil process, so you'll learn less brewing with it than you would with a system like The Grainfather, which is more hands-on.)
  • You want to brew, but don't have time to invest in the process. (The Zymatic automates much of the process, so you can do other things while the brew is going on without worrying that you'll ruin the beer.)
  • You can afford it. (It's not a cheap device. If your funds are limited, you may want to consider one of the more-manual but less-expensive systems.)
  • You aren't obsessed with hitting target gravity and volume consistently. (In my opinion, it's hard to properly predict the final volume and gravity. At times it seemed wildly high or low for no obvious reason to me.)
  • You don't generally brew 2.5 gallon batches that need more than 6 ounces of hops added during the boil or make more than four hop additions during the boil. (This is the limit of the four hop baskets in the Zymatic. There are ways around this limitation but they'll require you to do hop additions in the keg, which isn't automated and kind of defeats the purpose of an automated system like this.)
  • You don't generally brew 2.5 gallon batches that need more than 9 pounds of grain. (The Zymatic's upper limit is 9 pounds of grain. There are ways to work around this, like adding malt extract to the starting water or doing iterated mashing, but generally this is a limitation.)
  • You have reliable Internet access in the area where you brew. (The Zymatic needs reliable Internet access to run its brewing process, and may stop brewing if it loses contact with the Internet.)
  • You don't mind low Brewhouse Efficiency. (With the Zymatic, the more grain you use, the less efficient it is at extracting sugar from the grain. At a full 9-pound load, I saw efficiencies in the 49%-62% range. I saw efficiencies in the upper 70% to 80% range with The Grainfather.)
Why you might want to avoid buying the Zymatic:
  • You want as much automation as possible. While the Zymatic automates the mash and boil processes (which are most of the all-grain brewing process), there are systems that also handle loading their own water and chilling the wort.
  • You prefer to do 5 gallon or larger batches. You can get 5-gallon or larger batches out of the Zymatic, but it's really designed to do 2.5 gallons. To get a larger batch, you're going to be resorting to workarounds like brewing a higher-gravity wort and diluting it.
  • You like really clear beer. In my experience with the Zymatic, it was hard to really produce a nice clear beer. Maybe that's a byproduct of it boiling at 207F instead of 212F. Maybe it's just the yeast strains I used. Maybe I didn't give it enough time to cold-crash, or give the finings enough time to work. But the beers I got from the Zymatic were never as clear as the ones I got from The Grainfather or from extract brewing.
  • Money is tight. Even considering the discount I got on it the Zymatic isn't cheap. When you toss in the fact that it's not as efficient (in my experience) extracting sugar from grain as other setups, you'll be using more grain per batch than you might in a more-efficient system.
  • You like brewing a lot of "extreme" beers.  With its limitations on batch size, grain bill, and hop loads, the Zymatic may not produce the more extreme beer styles well. You may find that you're having to use a lot of "workarounds" like iterated mashing, bulking up with malt extract, or things like that. Similarly, if you're a hop-head who likes to brew beers that have many hop additions during the boil, the limit of four automated additions may not suit you.
  • Internet access is a problem.  If you don't have a good WiFi signal or a wired network port in your brewing area, you may find the Zymatic to be troublesome. It needs Internet access to brew, and it won't quite work without it.
  • Noise is an issue.  The Zymatic, to me, is fairly loud. Its diaphragm pumps run constantly during the brewing process, making "rat a tat tat" noises as they do. With it running in my basement, I could hear it from the top of the stairs. In a small apartment or home, I could imagine this being an issue for spouses, roommates, or neighbors.
If, after considering all the above, the Zymatic looks like a good fit for you and your brewing needs - go for it. I found it to generally be easy to use. It produces good beer. It saves you lots of time on the brewing side, and can allow you to try recipes you might not otherwise want to invest the time in. It can also allow you to experiment with subtle changes like doing the same batch with different mash temperatures, different hop addition timings, or different hops loads. I've had a lot of fun with it, except for that period during August where it experienced the clogging problems.

My experience with the support staff at PicoBrew was always great. They were knowledgeable, pleasant to work with, and informative. My only real complaint is that there's no "chat" or "phone" support option. Everything is email. Imagine that you try to brew on a Sunday night and hit a snag. You send an email. They answer on Monday while you're at work, and want you do check something or try something. You go home that night and take the action they recommend, then email them back. The next day you get a response, and so on. That's a large part of why I brewed pretty much nothing during August. I kept getting errors that caused the brew to abort due to a clog inside the system somewhere. They would suggest something, I'd try it and still get the error, and so on. It literally took weeks of this going around to solve the issue. Having a phone number to call might have made things easier.

Overall, I like the Zymatic and am glad I purchased it. That said, I did recently acquire a Brewie+ when it went on Black Friday sale in 2018. It's too soon to properly review that system, but there are a few things I like about it:
  • It produces 5-gallon batches (or smaller).
  • You have control over mash and sparge water amounts, so hitting target volumes and gravities should be easier.
  • It can load its own water from your household supply.
  • It can chill the wort to a yeast-safe temperature, automatically without any workarounds.
  • Its mash and boil vessels are stainless steel and open for cleaning. This also means it's possible to more easily do things like read/adjust mash pH and read the gravity during the boil.
  • Cleanup seems to be much easier and more automated.
  • The touch screen makes interacting with the system easier, and it provides a much more detailed status of the brew in progress (including estimated time of completion).
  • It boils at a temperature closer to 212F, which should help drive off DMS and potentially produce a clearer beer.
  • It does not require Internet access to brew, so it can be used in areas with spotty or no Internet access.
  • It's very quiet. You hear water splash about when it's filling the mash tun or transferring to the boil kettle, and an occasional whirring sound, but you can be standing nearby and hear almost nothing from it.
That's not to say that it's perfect, either. It's a newer system, so there are more software glitches in the interface and the (beta) application for mobile devices. It has limitations on grain bill and hop loads like the Zymatic. And I'm sure I'll discover more as I use it more.

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