Forget your Instantpots, your Keurigs, your french presses and your air fryers. Those may be great appliances but the PicoBrew is just plain awesome. Why do I love the Picobrew so much? There’s a lot of reasons. First of all, it makes beer! And, not just any beer but good beer – every time. That in and of itself makes it an awesome RV appliance but there’s a lot more to it then that. First off, I don’t need it and in fact rarely use it (only 2 runs in a year and a half) an in RV life having that one thing you don’t need is very gratifying. Next, it’s a great and rewarding way to spend a couple afternoons around the campsite. Finally, I love to make things and try new things and this satisfies both in a single package. So what exactly is this thing and how does it work?
The PicoBrew is the brainchild of a couple Microsoft engineers who launched it with a Kickstarter campaign a few years ago. I have the original Model S version, but the newer Model C and Pro are basically the same thing with minor tweaks to get the costs down. Many people refer to it as “The Keurig for Beer” however the machine itself doesn’t actually make beer, it makes the wort. To understand the distinction you have to know how beer is made.
Beer Making 101
To make beer, you steep crushed grains in hot water for a period of time. That hot water dissolves the complex sugars in the grains along with several enzymes. Those enzymes facilitate the breakdown of the complex sugars into simple sugars that yeast can use (under anaerobic conditions) to make alcohol and CO2. In the brewing process this is called “mashing” and is normally done in a “mash tun”. After mashing, the liquid is separated from the grains and boiled. During this boil other flavorings like hops are added for varying durations depending on the style of beer you are making. After the boil, the liquid is again separated and cooled quickly, this is your final ‘wort’. Once cool, yeast is added to the wort and the fermentation process begins, this is when the alcohol is made. After several days of fermentation, the fermenting is stopped and the beer is racked (transferred with as little junk from the bottom of the bin) to a clean container. Then comes carbonation which can be achieved by adding yeast/sugar (slow, old fashioned way) or by pressurizing the container with 20 psi of CO2 (the quick cheater way). Once it’s carbonated it’s ready to drink or be bottled.
The PicoBrew handles the entire wort making process outlined above for you in a very small efficient package. Normally, you would need several large kettles, a propane or electric burner system, big stirring devices, etc. The whole process is time and temperature critical and would therefore be difficult to control in an RV setting. Without that control, producing a quality consistent beer is nearly impossible. The PicoBrew condenses all that into an electronically controlled appliance that is only 12.5” wide x 16.5” high x 15” deep, weighing about 24 lbs for the whole system (kegs and all) – mine fits easily under the bed and travels with us everywhere we go.
You’ll need the following to make it work:
- The Picobrew (runs on 120V A/C)
- Distilled water (one run takes 2.5 gallons)
- A PicoPak kit
- A good wifi access point
- 16 gram threaded mini CO2 cartridges (the system comes with 5) if you want to pressure carbonate.
Thats it! To understand how it works, let’s go through this list and explain it. The PicoBrew appliance itself does all the work. To set it up, you add distilled water to the top bin (1 gallon). Distilled water is required here because any minerals in tap water would foul the steam generator at the heart of the system. That water is cycled through an electric steam generator within the unit. That steam is then used in a heat exchanger inside unit to control the wort temperature during the brew process. The PicoPak is a premade grain/hops bin that you order from PicoBrew. It’s essentially the kCup in a Keurig coffee system. It contains all the goodies that will make the beer you ordered. The online store at PicoBrew offers several beers from breweries around the world so you can actually make their recipes at home. Even cooler, they have a ‘freestyle’ section that allows you to make your own custom recipes either based on a particular style (like an IPA or a Stout), or you can make it up totally from scratch. Prices range from $12 to over $30 per pack depending on what you’re making. That will yield about 14 twelve oz bottles when all is said and done so it’s not a cheap but the results are outstanding.
Each PicoPak has an RFID device embedded in the lid. The PicoPak is inserted into the clear tray of the PicoBrew unit and the system reads the RFID device. This is where the WiFi internet connection comes in. The PicoBrew then ‘phones home’ to retrieve the program cycle from the PicoBrew servers. You cannot run the machine without an internet connection. To complete the setup, you add 1 1/2 gallon distilled water to the supplied brew keg, put he rubber lid on it and connect it to the PicoBrew with the quick connect ball locks. Through the dial/menu interface you choose “brew” and it may or may not give you options to adjust the alcohol output or the IBUs. After passing that screen, the cycle will begin.
The cycle will take roughly 2 – 3 hours depending on your recipe. As the cycle progresses, you can monitor it in real time via their website – which is pretty cool. During this time, the liquid is heated through all the stages of mashing and boiling and it’s circulated automatically from the brew keg through the appropriate bins (grain, hops 1, hops 2, hops 3 and hops 4) as dictated by the PicoPak. The brew keg gets hot during this process so make sure it’s sitting in a safe/secure location. They include a keg cozy to cover it with, it is mainly to keep the temperature stable while brewing but it also prevents you from burning yourself if you accidentally brush the side of the keg so it’s a good idea to make sure it’s on when you start.
When the brew cycle is done, all the liquid (wort) will be back in the keg with the exception of a small amount in the bottom of the tray. I usually like to pull the PicoPak out and pour that remainder back into the keg manually – it’s not much, but why waste it?
You then cool the wort as fast as possible. I usually place it in an ice water bath. Once it’s down to room temp you can start the fermentation process. To do that, remove the rubber cap on the keg and just add some of the supplied dry yeast. Then close the keg with the airlock lid, shake vigorously for a few seconds and let it sit 7 – 10 days. A day or two in you may hear it hissing or see foaming around the pressure vent. That’s normal from the buildup of CO2 inside. Just wipe any foam away and let it sit until complete.
After fermentation, put it in a refrigerator (or iced cooler) over night to kill off the yeast and let them settle to the bottom. The next day you rack the beer into the next vessel. To do that you hook the keg back up to the PicoBrew unit and select “rack beer” from menu. The menus will guide you through the process but it handles all the pumping of the liquid from the keg to the new container for you. What that container is will depend on which Pico brew you have, but it’s basically what they call the “serving keg”.
The next step is carbonation. You can add more yeast and sugar (included with the PicoPak) or attach a food grade small CO2 canister with the supplied regulator to carbonate by pressure. I’ve never done the yeast method – at 1 – 4 weeks it takes too long. The CO2 method takes 36 hours minimum (longer is better but you won’t notice much difference), you do it while the beer is chilling so it’s really ready to go after 36 hours and you don’t have to do any additional racking steps to clear more yeast out.
The end result will be cloudy homemade beer that tastes great. You can serve it from the serving keg, or you can bottle it and keep the bottles in the fridge. I prefer the latter because it frees up the kegs to start the next batch.
The only real downside to this is you are married to PicoBrew’s PicoPak. To my knowledge there is currently no way to make your own PicoPak from ingredients bought elsewhere. PicoBrew had a build your own or ‘BYO’ kit in the plans that included empty bins and spacers that you could add your own grains and hops to. That was supposed to be released in 1/2019 but was part of bigger project they put on ice for the time being. In announcing the postponement they did say they were continuing work on the BYO part of the project separately and hoped to have it out ASAP, but did not give a date. I’m looking forward to that, it would be great to really get in there and DIY a batch from scratch.
The PicoBrew is not a one trick pony. It includes a conversion kit that allows you to set up the PicoPak bin for sous-vide cooking. That’s basically slow cooking with heated water. The idea is that you can take something like a steak and put it in a plastic bag. You put that bag in the PicoPak tray and select Sous Vide cooking from the menu. I believe it asks for a time and temp, which you enter and then it bathes the bagged food in the tray in that water temp for that time period. You can probably tell I’ve never done it, but I’ve watched Youtube videos on it and those that have claim the results are outstanding. The slow gentle process is supposed to cook to temp perfectly while giving the meat time to relax, producing a juicier, more tender result then you’d get with direct heat in a stove. If I ever do this, I’ll post it in a separate post.
Like nearly every other operation with these units, cleaning is a process automated through and guided by the menus. There’s two cleaning modes. One quick mode which takes about 5 minutes that is run after each brew cycle. It’s very easy and get’s the unit back in storage condition very quickly. The other mode is a deep cleaning cycle that should be run after every 5 brew cycles or so. That cycle is very simple also, but takes a little more time. All in all, it’s an extremely easy appliance to take care of.
As of this writing there are two models available, the Pico C and the Pico Pro. Aside from minor cosmetic differences, the actual appliances are identical. The differences are more in how they are kitted together with the finishing components.
The Pico C comes in black finish only and has a less expensive to manufacture custom brew keg. It also has a cheap barrel style serving keg and carbonation fitting to attach to it. This is closer to the Pico S (the Pico S had the standard brew keg that comes with the Pro) that I have. I found the barrel style serving keg adequate provided you drank the beer within a day or two. It’s not really designed to hold carbonation. There is also no good way to bottle from this system since once it’s in the serving keg there’s no good method for racking into bottles.
The Pico Pro comes comes in chrome/stainless and has two standard post type brew kegs. The first for brewing/fermenting. The second for carbonation, serving or racking to bottles. I picked up a second keg at Austin Homebrew Supply and custom rigged my Pico C style regulator to work like the one supplied with the Pico Pro. That one can snap right onto the standard keg posts. This essentially makes my Pico S a Pico Pro. You can do the same with a Pico C, you can buy the parts at a place like Austin Homebrew Supply or PicoBrew sells them on their website. Given the option, I’d go with the pro version. The stainless finish looks nice and it’s more flexible out of the box. However if you’re on a budget you can do the C model and add the extra bits for about $100 from Austin Homebrew Supply later if you need them.
In conclusion, the PicoBrew is by far my favorite RV appliance. If you’re a beer snob like me or are looking for a fun way to spend some time around the campsite making something unique you can share with friends you really can’t go wrong with it.