By Brier Dudley
If you were one of the top guys who spent much of the 2000s trying to get Microsoft to develop tablet computers, you might be ready for a drink.
Fortunately, that guy — Bill Mitchell — has figured out how to easily produce a never-ending supply of absolutely top-notch beer, in any style and flavor you can imagine.
After leaving Microsoft in 2010, Mitchell started a company called PicoBrew with his food-scientist brother and a gifted hardware hacker he used to work with in Redmond, Wash.
Together they created a dream machine for small-scale brewing that they unveiled Monday.
Called the PicoBrew Zymatic, it’s a device the size of a large microwave oven that almost completely automates the process of producing beer.
The idea was to take the drudgery out of brewing, without sacrificing the fun or the gratification that comes from creating your own batches, Mitchell said.
“The beauty for us, especially in beer-making, is it’s this great fusion of science and cooking, of chemistry and cooking,” he said. “We didn’t want to lose any of that — in fact we want to enhance that portion of it — and just take out the bad portions.”
They’ve also applied modern technologies to the ancient art.
Zymatic machines were designed to be Internet appliances. They are controlled by open-source software, connected to the Web and managed through a browser.
PicoBrew’s software dashboard is used to concoct recipes and adjust brewing cycles. Users can share recipes through the service and monitor the brewing process remotely on their smartphone.
Data collected by this online service — from users who opt to share their brewing activity — will be used to continue refining the machines, which also are designed to be hacked and modified as buyers see fit.
About 1 million people in the U.S. brew their own beer, from President Obama on down, according to the American Homebrewers Association. But it remains a niche hobby because home-brewing can be a hassle.
To make a batch, you may spend most of a day cleaning and sterilizing vessels and implements, then heating, mixing and cooling the ingredients.
It’s also tricky to precisely repeat the process, which is what finally convinced Mitchell there had to be a better way.
While still an executive leading various Microsoft hardware projects, Mitchell, 50, began brewing more and more advanced beers at his Medina home, including Belgian ales, stouts and barley wines.
A turning point came after he produced a particularly great stout for a soccer-team party. Others raved and asked for more, but he was unable to get his special recipe to work again.
Mitchell didn’t have to look far for help. His brother, Jim, is a physicist and home-brewer who designs food-processing facilities. Their late grandfather was a noted General Foods scientist whose inventions led to products such as Cool Whip, Tang, Jell-O and Pop Rocks candy.
“We said, ‘We should be able to come up with something that automates that process, like a superautomatic espresso maker,’” Mitchell said. Goals included a system with precise temperature control that could produce repeat batches and that could be cleaned in a dishwasher.
At first they tinkered with things like robotic arms and complicated valve systems. Eventually they gave up trying to mechanically add and remove ingredients. Instead they figured out a way to circulate water at different temperatures through the dry ingredients.
To make a batch with a Zymatic, you select a recipe in the browser. Then you measure and pour grain into a plastic tray and the hops into specially designed filter baskets. You then slide them into the machine. A small “Cornelius” keg is filled with water and attached to the machine, which circulates the water back and forth.
About 3 ½ hours later the batch is done. You add yeast to the keg, refrigerate it for a week or so and the beer is ready.