“She sent us an email and it essentially said, in the nicest way possible, “is this thing legit or not?” Bill Mitchell looks a little wistful when he talks about his first interactions with his head brewer, Annie Johnson, the piece of the puzzle that was missing when his company PicoBrew was founded.
[Disclosure: ZX Ventures, which invested in October, also has a minority stake in PicoBrew.]
Brothers Jim and Bill, avid home brewers and geniuses in their own right, had an idea they couldn’t shake. What if they could make homebrewing easier, simpler, more accessible? What if a machine and foolproof recipes could make the success rate higher? A “bread machine for beer” if you will? After all, most homebrewers give up after the first few batches due to the inevitable terrible beer that results from the first foray into beer brewing.
Jim was a food chemist and physicist, and Bill was so high up in the tech world that his nickname at Microsoft was “Little Bill” (as in, just below that other infamous Bill at Microsoft). They also had Avi Geiger, a hardware engineer with 24 patents filled under his name.
This Dream Team was missing an essential component in the recipe for success, though. Who would shephard the recipes themselves? All of that made the borderline offensive email from Annie look like a dry hopped Oasis.
Her office smells like sausage. A PicoBrew of grains quietly hums away in the corner and baggies of spices spread across her desk. “I’m making a Bratwurst beer,” she explains of the non-traditional office equipment currently inhabiting her work space. Any question marks are cleared up once she shares that the beer is for the National Homebrewers Conference in Minneapolis.
It’s a homecoming of sorts for her, Annie is the first woman to ever win Homebrewer of The Year, a titled that’s well deserved. Her beer is always beautifully balanced, nuanced and thoughtful: a skill that can’t be taught to the level which it was born into her. A birth that was, at the very least, storied and intriguing.
Annie was born in the heart of German beer country to a single, young Irish-Catholic mother. Her birth father was an African-American GI serving in Germany. Four days later she was adopted by an American couple who raised her in California. A convergence of America, Ireland, and Germany is the genetic mixture that seems to mirror the current state of craft beer.
If you’re looking for Annie to be an anomaly in Craft beer, you’ll only find it in her appearance. In every other way she’s a bold representation of the people who’ve dedicated their lives to this fermented beverage: kind, open hearted, smart, creative, humble and determined. When it comes to a brewer, she is equal parts not what you’re expecting, and exactly what you’re used to.
After more than a decade of brewing under her belt the awards were stacking up. The jobs in the beer industry, however, were not. It wasn’t until several personal tragedies in her life held her between jobs that she ended up on an airplane reading about PicoBrew’s first incarnation, the Zymatic: a more complicated, less user friendly machine that’s still preferred by larger breweries looking to test flavor profiles, but not the simple push-button machine that the PicoBrew is known for.
At 30,000 feet, Annie made a decision to investigate this beer-making contraption. The resulting email exchange is still talked about in the expanding halls of PicoBrew. It was fate, it seems. She was the missing piece of the puzzle, and her recipes completed the vision.
Her and her team of brewers and food scientist do more than just develop the recipes for a push-of-a-button-brew, the main task is far more difficult: scaling down. How do you take a beer like Rogue Ales Dead Guy, a beer that is so well known and brewed at such large volume, and scale it down to a recipe for just a handful of pints? That's a job that goes far beyond math and a good palate. “It takes months, and the brewery always has to sign off on it before we package it.” Annie tells me of the process.
Sometimes she has a road map: yeast, grains, hops all used by the breweries to create these beers, which makes her brew-your-own-clone recipes slightly less difficult to develop. Other times, the proprietary yeast is impossible to replicate and the grains or ingredients are grown specifically for the brewery and can’t be accessed. She starts from square one those times. That is, if square one is a brilliant brewers mind and a epic problem solving ability.
“I’m not a big fan of rye beer, but this is really nice,” she samples a beer that one of her brewers is working on, taking samples and giving feedback to her team. She seems, always, to default to a happy tone, and end her feedback on a positive note. This may be part of the reason that everyone at PicoBrew seems happy to be there, or at the very least, content. As a whole, they are an incredibly likeable bunch, a team of hard working people focused on the same great idea, making them people you want to root for.
Annie, with her brilliant palate and solid work ethic will be the one you’ll cheer the loudest for, and not just because she serves the best beer.