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A BrewBot in Action. Photo courtesy BrewBot.

So where is your bread machine now? In a closet or cabinet, perhaps hidden behind your disused espresso machine or waffle iron or Inside the Shell Electric Egg Scrambler?

Many of us are suckers for kitchen gadgets. Some get used (love my raclette grill and stovetop smoker box) and others tend to drift to the back of the pantry (our juicer and dehydrator are lonely, but as nothing compared with the long-ignored espresso machine, which has seen action once since the Second Clinton Administration, as I recall).

Into the crowded panty now comes something new: a beer machine. And we’re not talking a Mr. Beer set, but a real, live mini-brewery on your countertop. Just add grain, hops, water and yeast and the machine will do the rest. Two separate projects are under way – one in the U.S. and one in Ireland – both funded via crowd-financing site Kickstarter. The U.S.-based PicoBrew says it will ship pre-ordered models as early as June. The Irish BrewBot says it is “Shipping soon,”

BrewBot sets the pre-order price at £1,700, or about $2,800. PicoBrew sells for between $1,699 and $2,099, depending on the size and configuration you want (including hardware to connect to electrical grids abroad). It will make a couple of gallons of beer in a couple of hours with hardly any input from you after the initial setup.

The idea makes good sense – beer, even more than other forms of cooking, benefits from precision and consistency. It’s relatively easy to make a drinkable beer in the typical DIY home setup, but refining a recipe and repeating it on a stovetop and in a couple of plastic buckets can be tricky. For that reason, even a small professional brewery is more of a factory that some romantic alchemy lab that homebrewers like to imagine.

There were already some systems on the market that promise pro-level convenience and precision for the home market, but they can be pricy. The breathtaking Sabco Brew Magic V350M, for example, starts at $7,000 and is in fact just a super sophisticated home-brew setup (or small pro brewery pilot system) that you could cobble together yourself with enough money and time and which still require a fair bit of technical skill to use effectively.

These new automated brewing systems, in contrast, bring beer making down to the level of the bread machine – add ingredients, wait, enjoy.

But is it really worth it, at least for a home user (they are touting this also as a bar or restaurant appliance)? I confess to being a frustrated homebrewer. I have made some great beers, some ok beers and a number of significantly bad beers. At my current house, however, I don’t have a good temperature control for fermentation and storage, which leads to unpleasant off flavors, and I don’t really have the room to add an extra fridge to solve the problem. As a result I’ve put the hobby on hold and converted the keggerator back to dispensing from professional kegs – no point in drinking bad beer when such good beer is available.

I watched the promo videos of the new brew machines with considerable interest (which is to say, I sat there thinking “Want one. Want one.”)

But at the same time, I remember the bread machine. I’ve had perfectly good breads made from machines, but as an avid home breadmaker, I don’t want one myself. I want to have my hands down in the process, kneading, proofing, testing and tasting the dough. To my mind, if you can produce perfect and consistent results, but never actually have to touch the dough and commune with the living things that are causing the magic transformation, then why bother? Just head out and buy a delicious, consistent, perfect loaf from a bakery.

My guess is that if I had a spare $2,000 lying around, I would be sorely tempted to burn it on a PicoBrew. But I also wonder if I might have to clear a space in the back of the closet – if I can make perfect, consistent, and delicious beer without the challenge of hitting my mash temperatures, struggling against the vagaries of the process (a stuck sparge sucks, believe me), cranking up a big healthy yeast starter, and otherwise getting my hands dirty in the process, I might as well just get a nice gleaming keg of, say, Racer 5 and save everyone the trouble.

But I still want one.

- Sean Scully

 

 

 

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