If you’re a beer enthusiast, you probably already know that beer tastes best fresh—ideally from a tap at the brewery. Beer starts getting stale as soon as it is bottled, and after a couple of weeks on a supermarket shelf, well, let’s just say the brewer is hoping you won’t hold that against them. Some beer fans take the issue to the next level with a home-brew experiment. Unfortunately, most home brewers give up on account of the equipment expense, time spent babysitting the brew and the messy cleanup, not to mention the intimidating science factor. What’s a beer lover to do?
The solution might stem from three very unlikely sources—Microsoft and Pop Rocks with a side of Harvey Mudd College. You may be asking yourself what possible connection do a software giant, an explosive 1980s candy and math-minded Mudders have. I’m glad you asked.
The answer is beer. Specifically, a brand-new ingenious little device called Pico—a sleek Wi-Fi-connected appliance about the size of a coffeemaker that brews your favorite beer in just a couple of hours (plus an easy three- to five-day ferment in an adorable five-liter keg). Its parts are dishwasher safe, so cleaning is a breeze, and all ingredients come prepackaged in a compostable PicoPak engineered from sugarcane husk pulp.
But more about the PicoBrew riddle. Besides sharing a love of home brewing, creators and brothers Bill and Jim Mitchell share an interesting family legacy: their grandfather, a food scientist, invented Pop Rocks and Tang, among other tasty novelties. Jim took up the food chemist torch while Bill, a longtime member of the Bellevue Club, focused his efforts in tech, working on flash memory cards for Intel and then moving to Microsoft in the early 1990s where he had his hand in software, PDAs, boards and wearables. The brothers were frustrated by the aforementioned issues with small-batch home brewing and sought to improve the 2,000-year-old process. They recruited Avi Geiger, another Microsoft alum with a special set of skills—an engineering degree from Harvey Mudd College. With Geiger on hardware design, Bill on code and Jim in the kitchen lab, the three formed PicoBrew—a company dedicated to getting the world brewing.
“As my wife would say, if it isn’t dangerous, expensive and time-consuming, I’m not interested,” Bill says on the three things his hobbies have in common, which include piloting airplanes, riding motorcycles and brewing beer in the garage. (Note: Putting words in your wife’s mouth has often been considered the most dangerous hobby.) Chalk it up to tedious hours spent behind a screen or maybe just a thirst for life, but Bill’s passion for home brewing is the hobby that got away and turned into a company.
When Bill left Microsoft, he had worked in so many areas of the company that his extensive non-compete precluded him from practically any and every tech job available. “There was nothing left but beer,” says Bill. Those are some big words from a man who used to be an avid wine collector. He remembers perusing his cellar—eyes resting wistfully on, say, a bottle of ’89 Lafite—but he would always leave the cellar empty-handed because that bottle is irreplaceable. There is no way to exactly replicate that wine.
“Beer opened my eyes. You can drink it now (it doesn’t have to be aged like wine) and it doesn’t break the bank. I want to drink the moral equivalent of an ’89 Lafite every night.”
Bill plunged into the home-brew scene “like a good geek engineer.” Back in 1994, mind you, there were no YouTube tutorials. Home brewers didn’t even have the craft beer movement to point to when their spouses complained about the mess, the smell, the rumors started by neighbors wondering what, exactly, was cooking in the garage late at night. Bill’s first batch of Belgian all-grain turned out well and hooked him further in. It wasn’t long before he was evangelizing to his friends and neighbors, preaching the tenets of good home brew. Of all the converts, only a couple have remained faithful after all these years. It turned out to be too much work for not enough good product.
He and Jim set out to change all that, to remove the possibility of a bad product through careful engineering. The Pico takes away the guessing game, providing home brewers with very precise temperature controls and the automation that comes with science. Brewers can monitor the progress from a smartphone or tablet—everything from a quick glance at time remaining to a deep analyzation of sugars. And if the home brewer chooses to opt in, the whole process can be shared with the online brew community every step of the way.
They have connected with dozens of brewers who are encouraged to publish their recipes through the PicoBrew online portal. If a recipe is accepted, customers can purchase the corresponding PicoPak and the brewer receives royalties on their sales. Bill assures me that they are trying to keep royalty rates attractive to foster interest. He looks forward to the day when someone makes their first beer million, comparing it to those who have made millions off 99-cent apps.
So the Pico is a countertop brewing machine that uses individual-sized prepackaged ingredients and hot water to make a beverage. Sound familiar? When Pico is inevitably compared to a Keurig coffeemaker, Bill unsuccessfully tries to suppress a little cringe. Keurig K-Cups produce tons of waste because they cannot be composted, and no one buys a Keurig because it brews the tastiest cup of coffee.
“When people buy a Keurig, it is 100 percent about convenience,” says Bill, launching into his “how-the-Pico-is-not-a-Keurig” speech.
First off, they engineered the PicoPaks to be completely compostable on purpose. “We said, ‘It’s our company and we get to do it our way. We’ll spend the extra effort to figure it out.’” It definitely took some extra effort, but the sugarcane husk pulp fit the bill. And instead of labeling the container with printed inks, they decided to use a laser to etch text into the container so nothing can contaminate the final product.
Bill continues, “Our product delivers three things. Quality: making the best craft beer outside of a brewery. If you want to taste the best beers in the world, you have to make it fresh. Customization: you can brew a well-known IPA in, say, a session style or dial down the bitterness or increase the hops. Selection: we have a bigger selection of ‘beer’ than any store on the web.” (Note: “Beer” is in quotes because they don’t actually sell beer; they sell ingredients that can be brewed into beer. This technicality means they aren’t dealing with liquor laws and can even ship to countries that don’t permit alcohol.)
To order a Pico, visit picobrew.com.