Bill Mitchell, co-founder of PicoBrew, explains that his company's "mission is to minimize the manual labor that's unrelated to the art and science of brewing." Each of his company's three different models, which have sold about 10,000 units in the past four years, simply eliminates, or makes easier, the steps of homebrewing where mistakes are most likely to occur.
"It's not like you're reconstituting dried beer," he says.
For example, PicoBrew's automated brewing systems carefully moderate temperatures through the brewing processes. They also automatically sterilize the equipment after brewing – a critical, and sometimes tricky, step in the process of consistently making good beer.
"The technology helps people make better beer by helping eliminate some of the technical defects that brewers often encounter," says Mitchell, who compares brewing with PicoBrew systems to cooking a meal on a modern stove rather than a campfire.
The Pico Pro unit and the newly released Pico C allow customers to make dozens of popular commercial beers at home, including Deschutes Brewery's Fresh-Squeezed IPA and Elysian Brewing Company's Dragonstooth Stout. Online customer reviews are mixed when it comes to how perfectly these recipes, which come to one's door in a so-called PicoPak, replicate the original beer.
Though these machines are marvels of technology, it isn't clear that using them fosters much in the way of personal brewing skills. Jeremy Marshall, Lagunitas Brewing Company's brewmaster, says he would probably never hire a new brewer whose only experience making beer has been with a beerbot.
"You probably don't learn very much brewing like this, except that if you put the grain and hops in this hole and press the button, you get beer," he says. By contrast, he has hired several assistant brewers whose only experience was homebrewing the traditional way, using a stove, bucket and large glass jug, or carboy.
Yet Marshall uses a beerbot himself. In Lagunitas' fermentation lab at its Petaluma, Calif., headquarters, Marshall and his staff have been running a PicoBrew Zymatic system since early spring, mainly to make test batches of beer with experimental grains.
In fact, of the roughly 2,400 Zymatic systems sold (for about $2,000 each) since the unit was introduced in 2013, about half, PicoBrew's Mitchell says, are now being used by commercial craft breweries.
Marshall believes beer machines may prove most serviceable in the long-term as research tools for professional brewers. He also expects them to remain popular among wealthy beer enthusiasts with too little time to brew in a crockpot and bucket. Traditional homebrewing can easily gobble up half a day in the first brewing stage alone. Beerbots, the advertisements claim, reduce brewing time to about two or three hours. Fermentation, the natural conversion of sugar into alcohol by yeast, takes at least several days no matter how one makes beer.
Geren thinks beerbots are too expensive to replace old-school homebrewing on a large scale. Whereas a traditional five-gallon (19-liter) homebrewing setup may cost about $200, the most affordable beerbot model on the market is the Pico C, which the company's website lists at $549. The Pico Pro runs about $800. Each one makes just five liters of beer.
"For the cost of the unit and $20 to $30 for the ingredient packs, you're brewing some pretty expensive beer at that point," he says.
The Brewie system runs $2,199 and makes around 20 liters of beer per batch. The WilliamsWarn BrewMaster is in a league all its own, running about $7,000 and making 23 liters at a time.
Because the WilliamsWarn system dispenses the beer from the same container in which it was fermented, "you're sitting on that one beer until you drink it all," Mitchell, at PicoBrew, notes.
Christensen believes the cost of the average beerbot must drop significantly if the products are going to become common household appliances. She believes automated brewing units are now "at the precipice" between failing as a concept and going mainstream.
"As a food editor, I've tested a lot of products like these, and I have seen so many gadgets come and go," she says. "I feel like it could go either way with these."
She recalls when sous vide machines first hit the market.