Each generation of PicoBrew’s beer-making machines has gotten easier to use, starting with the complex counter-hog, the Zymatic, which shares much of the original Pico’s DNA. PicoBrew set out to create an appliance that was a bit more affordable and a tad easier to use and clean. You’ll notice all our “little” words. There company didn’t reinvent the beer-maker here, just made a few tweaks, as you’ll be able to see if you compare our PicoBrew Pico C review with the Pico Pro version.
Box of boxes
Because it uses the same PicoPaks (recipes for craft beers) as the Pico Pro, the Pico C has roughly the same dimensions as its stainless steel counterpart. It’s 16.5 inches tall and 12.5 by 15 inches wide and deep. PicoBrew points out that it’s smaller than a lot of microwaves. That’s true, but there’s a reason people install them over ovens — to get the big, ol’ beast off the counter. There’s no rule that says you have to leave the Pico C in your kitchen, but you will be washing the components and transferring liquid quite a bit, and it’s not always a spill-proof process.
The Pico C comes with a ton of accessories and probably isn’t made for a studio apartment.
The black powder-coated machine does have a smaller OLED display than the Pico Pro. A knob next to it lets you cycle through the menu. Below is where the step filter and its lid live. This plastic tub is where you place the PicoPak or bags of food if you’re sous viding (we’ll get to that later.) Two hoses, one labeled “in” and the other “out,” stick out of the back like a split tail. Up top, a lid comes off and there’s a reservoir where you add distilled water.
That’s about it for the machine itself, but the Pico C comes with a lot of baggage. The other three boxes that ship with it contain a five-liter serving keg, brew keg and accompanying cozy, racking tube, bucket, hops pack cradle, and a few items for cleaning, like a keg brush and detergent tab. Extra storage space is not included.
Before you brew, check your schedule. Are you planning to go to sleep in a couple hours? Will you be home to ferment your wort tomorrow? Did you promise your friends a keg of home-brewed beer in less than a week?
Once you decide where you want your Pico C to live — at least for the next week or so while you brew and ferment — you’ll want to plug it in. It will ask to connect to your Wi-Fi, and you painstakingly use the knob to key in your impossibly long password. Afterward, you have to go to PicoBrew’s website to create an account and enter your registration code.
Then it’s time for the Pico C’s first rinse, one of the steps that requires distilled water. This is perhaps our biggest pet peeve with the Pico C (and Pico Pro). We live only three blocks from a grocery store, but the walk has never felt so long as when we’ve lugged three gallons of distilled water home. You can use tap water, if you faithfully descale every 20 uses.
Select “first rinse” on the Pico’s display, and it offers shortened versions of the instructions found in the manual. It’s a quick process, and using the “in” tube as a vacuum to suck up the remaining water from the reservoir is oddly satisfying. Now, you’re ready to brew.
The step filter is designed so the hops and grains packs, along with the cradle, fit snugly inside. The lid has “this side up” embossed onto it to avoid the spillage problem we had with the Pico Pro. The brew keg and reservoir both need distilled water for the brewing step, too.
When you put the PicoPak in the step filter, the appliance uses the pack’s RFID tag to read exactly what beer you’re making. In response, it adjusts all the settings for you. You can do a bit of personalization — changing the alcohol content and bitterness — but the machine doesn’t prompt you. You turn the knob to the right when the display reads “start brewing” to make the adjustments. This step is mentioned in the instructions, but we somehow forgot both times we brewed with the Pico C. It would be nice if this step was built into the process.
The entire process of making beer in the Pico C doesn’t vary wildly from the Pico Pro. The biggest changes are to the 1.75-gallon brew keg. Pico Pro uses ball-locks to snap the hoses to the keg, while the Pico C’s hoses just fit snuggly over the “in” and “out” nodules protruding from the keg’s top. The keg itself is squatter, and uses a dip tube inspired by smoothie cups. It’s a snap to clean. The Pico Pro’s brew keg is a bit more complicated to clean. Let’s put it this way: it requires a wrench. The Pico C is a vast improvement.
Brewing takes two to three hours of fairly loud whirring and grumbling from the Pico C. Your home will fill with a scent that’s somewhere between baking bread and a barn. If you’re wondering what’s going on inside the machine, you can watch it move through the stages — like boiling hops — on the website. When it’s done, your house will sound blissfully quiet. You can compost the PicoPak, and the step filter and lid are dishwasher-safe, which makes life a little easier.
Once your wort is cool (about 24 hours later), you’ll want to give it a vigorous stirring and add your yeast. Back in the day, the Pico Pro didn’t really require users to be involved in the post-yeast-pitching stage, depending on the beer’s alcohol content. But PicoBrew wanted to give homebrewers a little more insight into fermentation and hopefully prevent premature (and yeasty) batches.
With the PicoFerm — a little oval device that fits onto the fermentation seal — users can know exactly when their beer is done fermenting. It’s battery-operated and hooks up to your Wi-Fi. It uses the Pico C’s temperature sensors, even when the brewer is in low-power mode. Using that information, and the amount of CO2 the yeast is producing, it can tell you how much time is left before your beer is ready. The chart included in the Pico C manual indicated our amber ale should be done fermenting in four or five days, and the PicoFerm clocked it as finished on day five. We put the brew keg in the fridge before moving on to the next step.
The PicoFerm has a power button and three lights: red for error, yellow for progress, and green for complete. They didn’t seem to stay lit up all the time, and we’d have to press the button to see whether the light was yellow or green. The chart on PicoBrew’s website shows our house had some fairly wild temperature swings for late October — between 66 and 78 degrees Fahrenheit. We’re not sure what was going on at around 5:15 everyday to make the temperature shoot up to the high 70s.
Once fermentation is complete, the next step is “racking” or transferring the liquid from the brew keg to the serving keg. It requires some sanitation, using a solution to clean some of the equipment. Once again, the Pico C guides you through the process. While we had some issues here with the Pico Pro, the C handled everything like a champ. We had to ensure the tubes were pushed firmly down onto the keg’s top, but it is far less confusing than the Pico Pro’s ball-lock system. We do miss the satisfying click it makes, though.
Once you’ve got your beer in the serving keg, well, it’s still not exactly beer. It needs carbonation. You can achieve this with the natural method, which uses carbonation sugar and twice the number of days you fermented, or via forced carbonation. A CO2 regulator screws into the top of the keg, and 36 hours later, you can start pouring a fully realized beer.
PicoBrew’s PicoPak marketplace has doubled in size since we reviewed the Pico Pro, and now has more than 100 options. That sounds like a lot, but because both us and Pico are located in the Pacific Northwest, we don’t get the real benefit of the PicoBrew — being able to try beers not normally distributed in our area. Stoup, Rooftop, Flying Lion, Ravenna, and Elysian are all in the Seattle area. We’d be far more excited to try a beer from Louisiana-based Bayou Teche Brewing, or New York’s Harlem Brewing.
When PicoBrew launched the Pico C Kickstarter, it also announced a $59-per-month PicoPak subscription service. It sends two per month, mailing the second when the machine reads the RFID tag for the first. Timing-wise, you’d probably want a second brew keg and serving keg to make it work, but you might also want to hold off on the subscription until there’s more variety in the shop. Nothing about the Pico C is really aimed at saving you money; it’s more about the experience of drinking freshly brewed beer and trying new breweries. You can also make your own “Freestyle PicoPak,” if you’re so inclined. In the online shop, you can customize a few types of beer by adding more chocolate malt to your imperial stout, for example.
Sous vide, s’il vous plaît?
One of the Pico C’s Kickstarter stretch goals was the inclusion of a sous vide program, something the Zymatic has been able to do since 2013. The Pico C has a container you can fill with water (the step filter) and a temperature-control mechanism, so why not make it pull double duty? We half-filled the step filter with water, and it took about 18 minutes to raise the temperature from 62 degrees Fahrenheit to 150 degrees Fahrenheit. Keep in mind you’re manually entering the time and temperature; PicoBrew gives cooking guidelines for a few foods in the manual, but there aren’t pre-programmed options, such as “medium-rare steak.”
We clipped our plastic bags of pork chops to the sides of the step filter and stared impatiently at the machine for an hour and a half. Result? The pork chops came out juicy, and ready for a quick sear.
The five quarts of water PicoBrew recommends for cooking sous vide isn’t outrageous, but you do need — of course — more distilled water to pour in the reservoir. If you don’t already have an immersion circulator, the Pico C’s sous vide feature is certainly nice to have, but those with an Anova or Joule might still prefer using the distilled-water-free, quieter choice.
PicoBrew products come with a one-year warranty.Our Take
We talked to our never-homebrewed-before friend who Kickstarted the Pico Pro to see how he’s getting on with the appliance a year later. He’s still brewing with it, and just made a porter last week. He too lives in the beer Mecca that is Seattle, but likes being able to explore brews from outside the region.
The Pico C isn’t going to save you money on your beer bills (unless you’re comparing it to the Pico Pro), but it can open up your tasting map a bit. There are quite a few options from Canada and Germany available, for example. Much like how sous vide can make novice chefs feel like they’ve made a miraculous meal, the Pico C can introduce you to the world of homebrew.
What are the alternatives?
At first, we couldn’t quite remember how the $549 Pico C differed from the $799 Pico Pro — until we got to the brew keg cleaning stage. Besides the material of the machine itself, the main differences are with the kegs and the hoses and ball-lock attachments. The Pico C is geared a bit more toward newbies, with fewer accessories and some more dishwasher-friendly parts. The $1,999 Zymatic is far more complex and with its large size is fit for more professional settings. PicoBrew has some competition from crowdfunded (but not yet delivered) products such as the $600 Hopii and $1,172 MiniBrew. The $2,299 Brewie is shipping now, but it’s closer in size to the Zymatic.
How long will it last?
Once you’re all done brewing, the manual has pages and pages of extra cleaning steps for you. The machine definitely needs a fair amount of TLC. While the machine itself is sturdy, the real question here is, “Will PicoBrew, the company, last?”
If you buy regular homebrew equipment, you can get your supplies from anywhere. With the Pico C, you need the PicoPak, RFID tag and all. The company is obviously still innovating, but the real indicator is the marketplace. The more breweries that sign on to make PicoPaks, the more attractive the machines become.
Should you buy it?
Don’t buy the Pico C expecting to save a bundle, but if you see a lot of PicoPaks that pique your interest, and you are responsible enough to regularly descale your espresso machine, you could find a lot to enjoy with the Pico C. Just remember that it takes effort to make beer with the device. It’s not going to make you a cold one on demand.