This was published in The Burlington Free Press on
01.24.14 under the same title.
Lately I’ve found myself immersed in reading about artificial intelligence. It seems to be on a lot of writers’ minds at this moment. Columns and movies are coming out left and right on the subject. After seeing the movie “Her,” about a man (Joaquin Phoenix) who falls in love with his computer operating system (Scarlett Johansson), I was left pondering the technology of the future and wondering how it might affect the brewing world.
Beer brewing has already benefited from technological advances. From simple upgrades such as stainless steel and industrial cleaning chemicals to much more advanced ones, such as automated pumps and touch-screen control panels. Most small breweries still do almost everything by hand, but the larger brewers have started making some serious updates.
I visited a large craft brewery a while back that was so advanced their brewers sat in a control tower staring at screens. The brewer pointed to flashing dots on monitors that indicated at what point in the brewing cycle they were. Other screens showed graphs of temperatures while others had flow charts indicating what valves were open or closed. It was like sitting in an air traffic control tower and was a far cry from the hands-on activity most people think of when they think about brewing beer.
One could easily envision a nightmarish future in which breweries are fully automated. Recipes are designed by computers installed with artificial intelligence and programmed to analyze their target audiences’ preferences. That computer shoots the recipe file over to the brewery computers which place the grain and hop orders, transfer them from the silo to brew kettle, filter and rebuild the water chemistry, build up the proper yeast culture and brew the beer.
Various quality control computers would analyze the beer for impurities and verify that it has reached the proper specs from the original recipe. They might even simulate consumer responses to the flavor of the beer based on previous inputs. The marketing computers then design a label, and test that label against simulations of their desired consumer market. Printing, packaging and labeling are already mostly automated today, so this would be easy to integrate into the new, fully automated system.
The beer goes on a drone delivery vehicle and is off-loaded by an automated pallet jack at the point of sale. Not a single person needed.
This sort of future is coming this year on a tiny scale. PicoBrew has built a counter-top “beer brewing appliance” called Zymatic and plans to release its first pre-order models in June, with general availability starting in August, according to its website, picobrew.com. The unit appears to be about the size of a large microwave and promises to “brew award-winning craft beer at the touch of a button!”
Although I think this sort of technological advancement is cool, I’m not too worried about it becoming commonplace for the craft beer segment. The philosophy behind the craft beer movement is firmly built upon the idea that brewing is a craft or an art, not simply a profession or trade. The big breweries operate as factories turning out millions of identical cans and bottles each year from different locations. The small craft brewers of this country are honing their skill, practicing their art, perfecting their craft. They do this not through artificially intelligent computers, but rather through human faculties — sight, smell, taste and most importantly intuition. Just like great painters or composers, great craft brewers have a special gift that can’t be quantified and mechanized.
Sure, craft brewers can benefit from advancements in technology, but I’m fairly certain that robotic assistant brewers loaded with artificial intelligence are a long way off.