Minibrew machine in use

Process automation and the homebrew revolution

Want to brew like a pro? Good beer could become as easy to make at home as good coffee, thanks to microcontrollers, smartphones and some engineering ingenuity.

What if you could make yourself a beer as easily as you can drop a pod into a coffee machine and brew the beverage as well as the average barista? That’s the dream behind a wave of automated brewing machines, which could allow almost anyone to produce decent beer at home.

Of course, while the vision is of something enabled by cheap microcontrollers plus smartphone apps to drive them over Wi-Fi that would be as simple to use as a home bread maker, the reality is more complex. For a start, brewing typically requires several hours of cooking and a week to ferment, rather than an hour in the oven. That’s especially true if you are using the same real hops and malted grain that the professionals use, rather than the treacle-like liquid extracts provided in most packaged home-brew kits.

Plus, while your bread dough won’t go mouldy in the time it takes to rise, brewing’s longer timescale means that patience and cleanliness is essential. Indeed, the amount of microbiology involved and the number of variables available to the brewer mean that creating beer is as much an art as a science.

On the other hand, the processes involved in brewing have been refined over centuries, and at times - most notably in the 1800s - brewing has been a major focus for engineering innovation. As a result, large breweries now operate on industrial lines, using process automation to produce standardised and consistent products. Microbreweries too have been able to automate key parts of the brewing process. Now software and cheap microcontrollers are allowing home brewers to do the same.

“It’s due to improvements in the computer industry - you can quite easily get an Arduino controller or similar for a low price now,” says Marcel Pal, CEO and co-founder of Brewie, a Hungarian start-up that is developing a fully automated 20-litre tabletop brewing machine. “Ten years ago that was not possible. You had PCs, but not access to single-board computers (SBCs) as an individual customer, and that SBC is the core of a machine like this.

“Sensors are very low price now as well, and the technology has improved a lot in the last decade. There are more types and they are easier to get. It’s the same with other hardware such as pumps; the price went down and the quality went up. You can even build an automated home-brew system yourself if you have the skills.”

In some ways it resembles the arrival of the iPhone. All the individual elements already existed, including - in this case - consumer electronics, process control, brewing science, food technology and online recipe databases, but no one had combined them in such a synergistic way before.

The key aspects to control are temperature and time, says Ralf Leukart, sales manager for Germany’s Speidel, which has offered its Braumeister all-in-one brew kits with automatic controls since 2006.

“It sounds simple to make an automated control process, but the details aren’t easy,” Leukart says. “It’s pretty hard to keep a process like this under control. In particular, it’s hard to have the same temperature throughout the system, not just at the temperature probe, but it is even harder to do by hand.”

Without the help of automated temperature control, only the most experienced of brewers can hope to brew the same recipe twice and get the same result. This is mainly because the malted and milled grains must be mashed - washed through with hot water - at the right temperatures and for the right length of time in order to extract the maximum in fermentable sugars and the minimum in unwanted off-flavours.

Perfecting the brew

“You need to calibrate the temperature exactly, preferably within 0.1°C and at least within 1°C, in order to get the right sugars out,” explains Brewie’s Pal. Similarly, how long you boil the sweet malty liquid (called wort) and at what points you add hops will govern its final aroma and flavour, and in particular its bitterness. Get any of this wrong and the final result can taste significantly different.

Lastly, the hopped wort is cooled and transferred to a fermenting vessel, such as a lidded bucket or carboy, with yeast added. Alternatively, you can ferment in the brewing vessel, as the Dutch-designed MiniBrew does, though then of course you need multiple vessels if you want to brew more than once a week.

“This was known technology. There is nothing very special in the equipment, but the combination was not viable before,” Leukart adds. “The key elements were to get the right correlation between the heating and the pump flow. Too fast, and it cooled down, too slow and it overheated.”

Repeatability was also the key element for Bill Mitchell, the CEO and co-founder of US-based PicoBrew, whose Zymatic brewing machine resembles a microwave oven. Mitchell is a technology industry veteran with experience in consumer electronics and software development, but how did that background get him into brewery automation?

“My brother and I had been home brewers for over a decade. We had built our own home-brew systems, but they were rather different and we were frustrated by our inability to share recipes and get the same results,” he explains. “It became obvious we needed more process control; automation came second. The real thing was gaining better control, especially exact control over mash temperatures and better boil control. The primary aim was repeatability and automation was number two, mostly to bring those advances to everyone. My background in technology helped in dealing with suppliers and building prototypes.”

Mitchell also highlights two other factors: size and simplicity. The typical homebrew set-up involves multiple brewing vessels plus pumps, heaters, fermenting tanks, storage for bulk ingredients and so on. Indeed, in the US it’s common for it to fill half a garage. Zymatic was a big advance on that and, like the Braumeister, it is now used by commercial breweries. Yet neither is quite at the level of the pod-based coffee machine.

New wave

This is where some of the newest automatic brewing machines come in. With capacities of five to 10 litres, they are designed to look more like kitchen equipment than brewing kits, while their associated smartphone apps let you program and monitor the brewing process and remind you to take actions such as adding or removing ingredients.

PicoBrew’s second-generation Pico machine has even adopted the pod approach, with ingredient-filled cartridges made from compostable and flavour-neutral sugarcane fibre.

Others, such as MiniBrew and Northern Ireland’s Brewbot, will ship you ingredient packs containing everything needed for a particular brew, while Brewie’s packs even include the recipe itself on an RFID card.

These devices are also driving a new wave of engineering innovation. For example, the Pico’s small size left no room to fit in the usual rotating sprayer to wet the malt, so Mitchell and his team developed a multipath sprayhead based on pinch valves. Akin to an inkjet printer head, he says, this is static yet can direct fluid anywhere in the brew chamber.

For some home brewers though, this is all too much. It is more automation than they are comfortable with. They may already have added a temperature-managing Arduino to the repurposed tea urn or whatever else that they brew in, but the handicraft element - the desire to get your hands dirty - makes them shy away from automated brewing machines. So too does the cost: typically $2000 (over £1,350) or more.

“Where next is a good question,” says Leukart. “Are you a home brewer, or are you just brewing at home because it is possible to do so? Home brewers want to do some of the work: not all of it, but some. If you just press a button and seven days later the beer is ready, that might be too much. We always want the possibility to change something in the process. For instance, can you still add more hops if you want, even if the process has already started?”

While a degree of automation is hugely attractive to home brewers who don’t want to spend all day checking a thermometer, these new brewing machines are really about expanding the constituency. Sure, they give existing home brewers the option to customise and innovate by compiling their own ingredient packages for example, but they also need to attract new users - people who like the idea of home brewing, but have been put off by the complexity and the amount of work involved.

Kickstarting the kits

“We’re considering the needs of two different customer sets - we are all home brewers, but our friends and family don’t want to have to source ingredients,” says Mitchell. “Mostly they just want to brew known, good recipes, which can include commercial clones. We have already sold Zymatics to 1500 breweries worldwide, so now we are approaching them to do home-brew kits based on their beers.”

It seems that there are plenty of would-be brewers about, as demand for these brewing machines has been considerable. Several of their inventors turned to crowd-funding to get their projects going, using platforms such as Kickstarter, where PicoBrew set out with a target of $150,000 to develop Zymatic, but actually raised almost $700,000.

MiniBrew used Indiegogo, as did Brewie, the latter raising $725,000 against an original target of just $100,000. Northern Ireland’s Brewbot was another Kickstarter user, overshooting its £100,000 target in just a month and later raising another £1 million from seed investors.

One other area where they are all investing is in building communities around their technology. Home brewers tend to be a gregarious lot, sharing recipes, advice and (of course) beer, and in these socially networked days the expectation is that this new generation of brewers will be little different. In addition, these devices are equipped with sensors and are Wi-Fi connected, so they can feed back data Internet-of-Things-style, allowing their developers to fine-tune for repeatability and consistency.

As Mitchell puts it: “We are big fans of 3D printing - we see ourselves as a 3D printer for beer - and 3D printers didn’t take off just because of the technology, but also because you had libraries of designs to print available.” Add the Internet of Things, and something really interesting is brewing in the kitchen.

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