Let me first get this out of the way: I don’t home brew, mostly because of all the things you just pictured in your head by reading the words “home” and “brew” side by side: Messy. Smelly. Angry wife.
The device sounded amazing: An appliance about the size of a countertop microwave oven that can brew beer, connected to the Internet, all for about $1500.
Even more intriguing were the guys behind the box.
The CEO of Picobrew is Bill Mitchell, who at one time or another had ran Microsoft’s mobile phone business, early tablet efforts, the SPOT smartwatch business and a few others. CTO Avi Geiger was the principal hardware architect for the first Microsoft Surface and a few other mobile devices (remember the Kin?).Bill Mitchell, pitching the Picobrew Zymatic on Kickstarter
Given that they’d left the comfort of Redmond for the startup world and some of their past efforts lined up with some of my current research interests, I decided I wanted to hear their story. I emailed Bill, mentioned something about how I’ve been doing work on smartwatches and saw he was the guy behind SPOT, and suggested a phone call.
Bill responded and said sure, he could talk on the phone, but that I should really come down to their office in Fremont where I could taste some of the beer they’d been whipping up in the lab.
I agreed, because it was quickly becoming clear to me that field research would be required.
The next day when a friend and I arrived at Picobrew headquarters, Bill sat us down in the lobby turned tasting room and poured us a variety of tasty beers.From the Picobrew Lobby/Tastingroom
I can say during that during the conversation the followed, Bill talked a lot about different types of hops, yeast, and a bunch of other stuff I wish I could remember but can’t, mostly I was really just enjoying the beer.
After we’d conducted sufficient preliminary “research”, Bill asked us if we’d like a tour of the place.
“Sure,” I said, making sure to pick up my beer.
Our first stop was the Picobrew machining and prototype room, a big room filled with a giant CNC router, electronics and lots of metal.
“I’m cheap,” said Bill, looking around. “We bought a lot of this stuff second hand.”
I pointed to a CNC router the size of a small Hyundai and asked where he got it.
“eBay” he told me. “From a guy down in Oregon.”
He explained that while they were going to produce the Kickstarter run of Zymatics using factory production and injection molded parts, they had to first spend a few years prototyping the box to get it small enough to fit on a kitchen counter.Some heavy metal prototyping in the Picobrew machining room
“Did you use 3D printers for some parts?” I asked.
“Yes, I was one of the first customers of Makerbot,” he said.
Bill walked over to a large glass panel refrigerator and pointed to some bottles of beer inside. In here, he said, was where they had stored a methodically chosen spectrum of their favorite beers from around the world which they used to run taste tests against their own batches.
It was only after they had gotten to the point where they all agreed that each of their beers was on par with the benchmark beers did they feel they were getting close to production.
We then went to the lab, where Bill introduced us to a few interns (“We put our office directly between Fremont, where there are lots of breweries, and the UW, where we find lots cheap intern labor”) and then proceeded to give us a lesson on art of brewing.The lab is where the magic happens
I could try and repeat the things he talked about — Northwest hops vs. Noble hops, the amazing work being done with beer yeasts, the flavor added through use of different oats and other ingredients — but I wouldn’t do it justice. Let me just say this guy knows his beer.
Where things got really interesting for me was when he showed us the Picobrew website and software, which is connected to the Picobrew Zymatic.
He logged into the Picobrew portal and the “recipe crafter” software and proceeded to show us how, with a few clicks of a button, you could import a beer recipe for pretty much any type of beer you like.
Want to brew a beer by some famous brewmaster? No problem. How about making a batch of Negra Modelo? Load the recipe into the recipe crafter software, order the exact ingredients (the site connects to home brew ingredients partners) and once you have the right ingredients, you start brewing.
“I decided to do this after home brewing for a few years,” said Bill, pointing to a “conventional” home brew set up they’d put in the lab.The traditional method
“When you home brew, you can make a really great batch, but then you try and recreate it there’s a good chance it will taste completely different.”
I asked him why.
“Because even if the ingredients are the same, you might mash at a different temperature or for a different length of time. It’s very difficult to control the variables.”
I’m no beer making expert, but the point was driven home: making beer the old way required not only measuring ingredients, but replicating a beer brewing process exactly the same way to get a beer that tasted the same brew after brew.
In other words, exact replication, or something close to it, required that you own a professional brewing operation.
That is, until now. Until the Picobrew Zymatic.
Bill went on to caution that beermaking, even with the miracle of what the Zymatic, is still an art, still requires some level of talent.
“But,” I asked, “for the most part, you can dial the software in to create the same batch over and over and get something pretty close?”
In making his Kickstarter video, Bill and team featured a number of Seattle area brewers who they’d brought into the lab to try out the Picobrew system. They all talked about the Zymaster in glowing terms, happy that for the first time they could test out recipes in small batches with high levels of precision without using the conventional, expensive brewery process in their own facilities.
And while I’d recognized some of the names of the breweries behind the brewmasters who were singing the praises of the Zymatic, the one person on the video that drove home the impact of the Zymatic on the craft beer world was Paul Shipman.
You see, it was as a college student in the early 90s when I really grew to like craft beer, and my favorite craft beer was Red Hook ESB. Shipman (alongside Gordon Bowker, cofounder of Starbucks) was the guy behind Red Hook.
And what did Shipman have to say about the Zymatic?
“Now, home brewing, has the potential to cover the entire waterfront of beer production. That’s what this does. And there is nothing like it.”Paul Shipman of Redhook talking about the Zymatic
Nothing like it! If Shipman, the guy who founded one of the biggest craft brew companies in American thinks there is nothing like it, who am I to disagree?
The more Bill showed us the recipe crafter, the ability to hone batches just so, and how Zymatic users can instantly share recipes across the world and have them replicated so that they taste essentially the same, the more it reminded me of another type of technology.
And just like a 3D printer like the Makerbot is cool but not revolutionary without the ability to share your ideas in a uniform way, the Zymatic becomes amazing exactly because of the Picobrew portal and the ability to share beer recipes based on beerXML (did you know there was a beerXML?), but the batch data associated with it as well.
Sure, there are lots of home and craft brew websites, but before it was simply sharing the recipe and hoping the brewer could get close. But only now can share your recipes and associated batch session data uniformly, have them brewed using the same exact equipment, and expect that they can be repeated over and over anywhere.
Again, like Thingiverse and a 3D printer.
In a few years, I expect maybe we’ll see beer “brew service bureaus” pop up in local neighorhoods across the world, where local aspiring brewers can upload their recipes on Zymatics they are renting by the hour and brew their favorite beer. Maybe we’ll see Zymatics — which are based on Arduino — make their way into makerspaces, and you’ll see brewing become another craft being honed by the new generation of makers and creators.
Maybe I’m going a bit overboard. Maybe this is just another in a long line of efforts to bring home brewing to the mass market.
Maybe a little beer box being made in the Fremont neighborhood in Seattle won’t change the beer world like I think it will.
Maybe, after all, it’s just the beer talking.
But then again, I don’t think so. And besides, if it is the beer talking, what it’s saying is pretty interesting and something different and new.
So I suggest grabbing a stein and give it a listen. You might just hear about the new world of beer.
“Been around the world and found
That only stupid people are breeding
The cretins cloning and feeding
And I don’t even own a TV”
-Flagpole Sitta, Harvey Danger
Whenever I get pulled down into the sewage-like abyss that is today’s comment sections of Huffington Post, Yahoo or my local paper, I’m reminded on the Harvey Danger song ‘Flagpole Sitta’.
After my first thought, which is usually ‘who are these people’, I often think that if for some reason a viral strain were to go airborne tomorrow and kill off all living beings, chances any intelligent space life that showed up later to reboot our servers would have to invent a word for cretin if they didn’t already have one.
That’s because today’s comment sections are where we see the worst from some of the worst people, not to mention some pretty bad stuff from mostly good people too.
The reason is that while in the physical world it’s largely frowned upon and in some cases illegal to act the way people act in today’s comment sections, such anger, stupidity, and ignorance is common and often time encouraged in the bits lurking beneath those posts we read.
And while I admire the brave ones, those folks who write thoughtful counterpoints in polite language with hopes of bringing about a more reasonable tone, such efforts are usually rewarded with an epithet or red-faced obscenity .
Which is why I’ve largely given up on comments, and apparently I’m not alone. Last week Popular Science, a place where the politicized discussion around global warming and other science issues has infiltrated the comment section, announced they were pulling comments.
According to the publication’s online content director, Suzanne Labarre, the reasons are partly because their Popsci comment section is laden with insults and epithets like so many others, but also because they felt by allowing the comments to live freely beneath the well-researched works of experts, it ultimately undermined their work.
Here’s Labarre in her own words:
"A politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise has eroded the popular consensus on a wide variety of scientifically validated topics. Everything, from evolution to the origins of climate change, is mistakenly up for grabs again. Scientific certainty is just another thing for two people to "debate" on television. And because comments sections tend to be a grotesque reflection of the media culture surrounding them, the cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine is now being done beneath our own stories, within a website devoted to championing science."
Did Popular Science do the right thing, or is shutting down comments altogether the digital equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and closing your eyes?
When the world moves past the institution
Whenever I think of some political institutions like, say, the US government or the UN Security Council, I think ‘well, they did a good job with what they had.’
What I mean by this is that these institutions were brilliant at conception, rightly haled as miracles of modern societal/political innovation, the world’s moved past them and because of this they’ve been rendered largely dysfunctional.
I think the same fundamental problem is what is wrong with comment sections. With the DNA of BBS and Internet forums coursing through their veins, today’s comment sections have not evolved really since their modern conception a decade and a half ago with the birth of blogging.
If you spend time on Yahoo or even more modern web properties like Instagram, which is becoming increasingly polluted with pretty awful comments (just look at Major League Baseball’s Instagram account if you doubt me), it won’t take long before you see some awful opinions from some people.
And that’s wherein lies the problem. If the fundamental underpinnings of the foundation on which you build your comment house on is based on the original terra firma of the blogging, forum and social web of the past few decades, it’s a faulty foundation, one which could eventually sink the entire house.
So is Facebook Commenting the Answer?
Most of today’s comment sections on push-button publishing platforms like Wordpress are decent at guarding against spam (though not perfect), they don’t do a good job at improving the quality of the conversation.
Some newer comment systems like Disqus allow for flagging inappropriate content and some like the proprietary comment system for The Verge allow for comment up and down voting, there’s still quite a few trolls on these newer sites, and as the dark and scary commenting world of YouTube shows, comment voting often does nothing to clean things up (which is part of the reason Google announced just last week they were looking to update their comment sections).
Some of this bad behavior can be attributed to simple lack of retribution for being bad. For most, the penalty for being a jerk is nothing.
This is why some have pointed to Facebook commenting as the answer to the problem of trolling, as it provides, at least to those determined enough to create a fake Facebook account, some level of authentication and a curb high deterrent for people who would normally hide behind anonymity.
While I think Facebook comments provide some measure of a deterrent, they are not the cure. Sure, determined people can still create a phony Facebook account, but more importantly I this anonymity has it’s place in the world, both of the digital and real world variety.
There’s a long history that shows the value of anonymity, and shielding one’s identity is sometimes required for those who would possibly face negative repercussions from an employer or someone in power.
Maybe it’s time to take the conversation elsewhere
So what’s the answer to the comment problem?
I don’t know. I think more modern commenting systems is one way to improve things. I think shutting down comments may make sense for those places on the web where valuable research or work is being done and commenting undermines that.
But in reality, I think maybe we should think of how the conversation no longer needs to take place not underneath the posts themselves, but elsewhere. As the web has become more social, the conversation that matters usually happens somewhere else, on Twitter, Facebook, on Reddit, or any other digital watering hole.
This idea, that maybe the comments themselves are outdated was driven home to me this Sunday, when I was having a conversation with Harry McCracken of Time Magazine. Harry about the reaction to his cover story on Time about Google’s moonshots, and when the conversation about commenting came up, he said that the most interesting reactions weren’t on Time (where there is a paywall), but on the social web.
So maybe it’s time to give up comments. Instead of force-fitting another Facebook technology onto posts, people can go where they’re already having the conversation, Facebook or elsewhere.
That way, cretin or not, you can keep on talking, and all we have to do is click the unfriend button.
I’m old enough - barely - to remember the hoopla around this one question: Who shot JR?
It was a cliffhanger of a season finale of Dallas, that 70s-80s TV show that was basically a prime time soap opera.
My mom watched the show, I remember that. Since we didn’t have DVRs back then (yes, reallly, young Millennial reader - look it up the Internets) and being really before most anyone had a VCR (the episode aired in 1980), all viewing was live in our house.
And so like any good mom, she would send us rugrats to bed so she could watch it.
But even though I didn’t watch it myself, I remember it was big. Very big. Bigger, it seemed, than all of the other TV-related “big moments” over the years, which I would include:
But now, I think we have a new entry into the annals of big TV moments. I don’t remember any TV moment in the past decade - other than maybe the Sopranos finale - that has came close to how much it spilled over into the broader culture like Breaking Bad did this season and in particular the finale.
Sure, it’s all about context and it’s probably magnified because I’ve been a fan of the show for the last 3-4 years, but trying to look at it objectively, it really does seem like it captured the imagination of pretty much everyone.
I mean, seriously: Breaking Bad cookies?
One time, about twelve years ago, I took my dog for a walk.
I’d always been a big dog guy, someone who’s parents always favored German Shepards, Huskies, a sheep dog or two, and as a consequence I always thought big dogs were the only real dogs, and you could keep your lapdog for yourself, thank you.
But the dog I was walking this day was not a big dog. In fact this dog, named Diva, was a Shi Tzu, perhaps the lappiest of all lapdogs.
It was my wife’s idea to get a little dog, and one weekend, perhaps sensing her big-dog husband would object to the idea of any dog who could not play fetch, wrestle or take down an intruder, she took advantage of my being away at my high school reunion to find our new Shi Tzu puppy.
When I got off the plane (this was before 9/11, mind you), there she was in the waiting area, with our big dog Zoey (a husky) on a leash and a little furball in her arms.
At first I didn’t even see it. When I finally did spot it, this quivering puppy of all of two pounds, it seemed barely a dog at all, but instead just two big bulbous eyes in a tiny Star Trek-y ball of furriness looking up at me from Tiff’s arms.
One thing I’ve learned being married for 18 years is that most of my wife’s ideas are good ones, and I realized quickly this impulse buy of a small lapdog was no different.
It wasn’t long before I fell in love with our little dog, her kind disposition (most small dogs I ever met were snippy, mean, but not our Diva), her playfulness, her reverence for her big (and also kind) sister Zoey.
Only a few years later we lost Zoey, which was sad for all of us because she was a beautiful dog, extremely kind, but it also took on a little extra significance for me since Zoey was a gift to me from Tiff before we were even married. (Yes, another crazy but good Tiff idea: get her boyfriend of three months a dog).
But fortunately for us, our son was only three months old at time of Zoey’s passing and didn’t really get to experience the sadness we felt over losing our first family dog. In reality, Diva was, for him and later for his younger sister, their first family pet.
And boy did they love her. Like I said, my experience with little dogs was that they tended to be a bit yappy, nervous, and some are even downright mean.
Tiff’s brother owned another Shi Tzu by the name of Taz, and I can’t tell you how many times that little thing snapped at me or his kids, sometimes actually finding paydirt and breaking skin.
But Diva, she never bit our kids. In fact, she never growled at them or anyone. Sure, she’d bark at the occasional houseguest, but these dog vocalizations were always of the “hey, I’m watching you buddy, these are my people” variety.
Even as our kids got bigger and bigger, and as Diva got older and slower, her kind and gentle nature never left her. Kids being kids would hold a bit too roughly, chase her a little too closely, and maybe even tease her a bit too much with the biscuits and treats that were only be her’s after a good amount of laughing and perhaps a scolding from their parents.
But if her parents were annoyed at the kids, she never showed it, and would just wait until they had loved her or teased her and then pick up her biscuit or go find a place to nap.
And so after sixteen years, today, Diva had slowed to the point where she could hardly stand, had stopped eating or drinking, and the day we hoped wouldn’t come had. We had to say goodbye our little dog.
Back to my story. That afternoon about twelve years ago, when I was walking Diva down a hill in our little town in Edmonds, a car full of teenagers drove by.
Seeing this guy, a thirty-something dude, a guy who by all appearances was a big-dog type of guy, being pulled by a furball on the end of a leash, they decided to heckle me a bit.
"Nice dog!" yelled some teenage boy.
The rest of the car’s occupants, a mix of probably 5-6 teenage boys and girls, laughed uproariously, as I probably would had I been with them.
At the time, I ashamed to admit now, I was a bit embarrassed. I think I thought about yelling “but I have a big dog at home!”
But I didn’t, and I realized later that I’m fine with being seen with my little dog.
In fact, I’d say Diva made me a lapdog guy.
Rest in peace, old girl.
A friend of mine, David Spark, is putting together a really cool e-book on advice we used to give people about social networks that we now think is probably not a good idea anymore. I wrote a piece for him called the Swiss Chocolate Network.
I thought I’d share it here.
The Swiss Chocolate Network
I’m a big fan of Linkedin, so in the late 2000’s when coworkers would ask me how to build a solid network of contacts for advancing their career, one of the things I would usually suggest was to amass a large Linkedin network.
Nowadays, while having a significant number of connections on Linkedin isn’t a bad thing, I don’t believe amassing a large number of connections is all that beneficial to a career.
If you spend too much time (like I have) just building a network outward rather than focusing on developing key relationships with people, you have the network equivalent of a chocolate Easter bunny: big and tasty looking, but hollow on the inside and ultimately unsatisfying.
What matters more is developing substantial relationships with people. People you meet face to face, who you’ve had long written or phone conversations with, they’re much more likely to have a significant impact on your career.
Instead, go deep, not wide. Build substance.
Build a Swiss chocolate network.