Homebrewing Technology: Technically Cheating?

Tech Talk by | Nov 2015 | Issue #106
Photos by Simon Mills and Filly Campbell

Increasingly, technology is the fifth ingredient in craft beer. Today, science is being harnessed with technology in ways hardly envisioned until recently. From controlling small-batch brews with smartphone apps to sequencing yeast DNA and inventorying the flavor markers that could predict your next favorite brewery, scientists and tech entrepreneurs are teaming up to take some of the guesswork out of your next beer.

And while some cerevisaphiles might question the idea, others embrace technology as yet another instrument in the brewing toolkit. Consider this: craft brewing by its very nature is a category disruptor. Just as Kodak didn’t see the digital camera coming until it was too late, Big Beer overlooked craft brewers. Now a new debate about change has seeped into the homebrewing community: Is technology an acceptable substitute for trial and error?

“It’s an interesting question,” says American Homebrewing Association (AHA) director Gary Glass. “I think there is value in going hands-on to understand the process. So while technology can be a great tool for experienced brewers, I’m not sure it would be that helpful for someone just starting out homebrewing.”

By any measure, Denny Conn is an experienced homebrewer. Co-author of Experimental Homebrewing, he began homebrewing in 1998 and plans to make his 500th batch this year. Initially resistant to the idea of a closed brewing system, Conn now embraces the concept. He decided to try one out when he learned that Annie Johnson, a brewing acquaintance and the second woman to win the AHA’s prestigious Homebrewer of the Year Award, accepted a position as master brewer at Seattle-based PicoBrew. The company makes the Zymatic, a closed brewing system slightly bigger than a microwave that it promotes as “the world’s first fully automatic all-grain brewing appliance.”

“My initial reaction was no, no, no—I want a totally hands-on experience,” Conn says. “But I have a very high opinion of Annie’s skills.” So he agreed to try a loaner from PicoBrew. He now jokes that he’s not giving it back.

“The system eliminates a lot of the manual labor that no one likes about brewing,” Conn reports. “In the time I used to spend cleaning up and hauling equipment around, I can do a load of wash or work on a chapter for our next craft beer book.” Monitoring the brewing process on his phone or laptop makes his life that much more efficient.

“I know there is a tendency to eschew such closed brewing systems, but once you understand it’s really not any different than building a bigger automated system for yourself, I think people see the light,” he adds.

According to Johnson, 40 percent of PicoBrew’s customers have never brewed a batch of beer. “I love the community that is developing around the Zymatic,” she says.  “Our customers appreciate the consistency they get. But I understand any resistance—it’s something new. I wouldn’t use a cell phone for years, but I finally understood it accomplished the same end and helped me be more efficient.”

106TechTalk2At Brewbot, a trip to Portland, Ore., to attend the XOXO Technology Festival transformed a mobile app development consulting group into an entirely different company. “On returning home to Northern Ireland we were disappointed to find we couldn’t get the styles or quality of beer we had enjoyed in the US,” says Jonny Campbell, Brewbot’s marketing VP.

As with all homebrewers, the partners hit the same “problem and pain points” in their learning curve, with results that were often inconsistent and unrepeatable. It didn’t take long for them to see a solution to their problem. “We realized we could be tracking the process with technology to better understand what was happening while tracking time, temperature changes, ingredient additions and volume readings.”

After some beta testing trial and error and several iterations, the team ended up with a compact, handsome, wood and stainless steel rack-stacked device. Linking the brains of the operation to a smartphone app, the team then brought their high-tech homebrew to a beer festival.

“That led us to realize that a lot of people want to brew beer, but they don’t know where to begin,” says Campbell.

All of a sudden, they had a business. A 2013 Kickstarter campaign raised over £114,000 ($100,000) to build 100 Brewbot units, which shipped in early 2015. He also maintains that removing the trial and error aspect doesn’t take the art out of making beer.

“Brewbot automates much of the variable process so a brewer is not tripping over equipment, spilling boiling water all over their garage, or sitting around waiting for a precise temperature to be reached,” he says. “The art of making beer is designing a recipe and controlling the mash and the hops to brew great tasting beer.”

Not everyone is convinced. Sean Nook, founder and head brewer at Black Bottle Brewery in Ft. Collins, Colo., claims hands-on trial and error is an important part of the brewing learning curve. “I made a lot of terrible mistakes when I was learning to homebrew,” Nook says. “But the way I brew now is the same way I learned to homebrew, it’s just on a bigger scale.”

Conversely, a recent online poll of AHA members elicited many well-reasoned responses to the question of technology and closed-system homebrewing. Most were tolerant, even accepting, of the concept, with several respondents speculating that using a thermometer or hydrometer could technically be considered cheating.

“Automation doesn’t mean there still won’t be trial and error,” wrote one individual. “Just that variables will be easier to control when experimenting.”

In Johnson’s opinion, it’s all about the same outcome. “Technology only replaces part of the brewing process if you want it to,” she says. “The end result, no matter how you brew, is all the same—to make great beer.”