A High-Tech ‘Beer Printer’ From Belgium Wants to Digitize the Drinking Experience

Making beer has long been the proving ground for innovative technologies, from the earliest mercury thermometer and first saccharometer through the introduction of the cylindroconical fermenter and on to the modern hop torpedo. Now, a Belgian startup called Bar.on wants to bring molecular mixing to the pint glass with a tabletop “beer printer” that can supposedly recreate any brew in a matter of seconds.

That might sound like something from the future, but it’s already here — at least in the proof-of-concept stage. Last year, the company presented a fully operational prototype, called “OneTap,” that can pour five different styles of beer, as well as custom brews users can adjust to their preferences. Since then, members of the public have been able to sample lager; blonde, brown, and triple ales; and IPA made by the small countertop device at trade fairs and other events in Belgium.

“I promise you that if you do a blind tasting, even among beer lovers, you will be surprised,” company founder Dirk Standaert says. “If you put 10 beers in front of them and one or two are molecular, they will not be able to pinpoint them.”

Mixing a bunch of molecules together to make a decent IPA in an instant might seem like a big win. But what gets lost when drinkers can recreate any brew in a matter of seconds? Is beer really just the sum of its molecular parts, or is there an intangible aspect that can’t be emulated by a machine?

Exceptional Non-Alcoholic Beers

In addition to six cartridges filled with natural aromas and flavors, the OneTap uses tap water and a malt mixture, adding carbonation and the appropriate amount of neutral grain spirit to create a drink that is said to taste just like beer, even if it wasn’t brewed and fermented in the traditional way.

The device was inspired, Standaert says, by a 2018 book by Kevin Verstrepen, a professor of genetics and genomics at Leuven University. In “Belgian Beer: Tested and Tasted,” Verstrepen and his co-author Miguel Roncoroni analyzed hundreds of Belgian beers at the molecular level, offering charts that show each beer’s relative levels of compounds like lactic acid and ethyl acetate. Bar.on won’t say exactly what’s inside the OneTap’s flavoring cartridges, other than vague terms like “hop” and “aroma.” (However, it’s probably safe to guess that there’s some overlap with the categories from the book, since the Bar.on website notes that it “teamed up” with Verstrepen.)

To “brew” a beer, users can simply push a button and get a standard recipe, or use sliders to adjust characteristics like bitterness and amount of alcohol. When it comes to styles, those with strong flavor profiles are the low-hanging fruit, Standaert says. An IPA is easier to pull off than a classic pilsner.

“From our experience, the more neutral the recipe, the more difficult it becomes,” he says. “Lager is, for us, the most difficult recipe.”

Bar.on’s website notes that it secured 1.8 million euros in seed funding from investors, including Astanor Ventures (“driving positive change and creating meaningful impact in the entire agrifood value chain”), Exceptional Ventures (“invests in early-stage companies that aim to improve people’s wellbeing and the planet”), Thia Ventures (“investing at the intersection of food, biotech, and health”) and Food Ventures (“invests in promising food science and technology startups”). At this stage, the company is working on securing additional funding, Standaert says, with a goal of putting out an expanded prototype for commercial use in 2025.

A High-Tech ‘Beer Printer’ From Belgium Wants to Digitize the Drinking Experience
Credit: Bar.on

In a beer-loving country like Belgium, Standaert’s claim that even experienced tasters can’t tell the difference is likely to raise some hackles, to say nothing of the device’s very existence. When I reach out to one prominent Belgian beer judge, he’s not terribly well disposed toward the OneTap prototype, though he admits that he hasn’t actually tried it yet. “Most people I know are against this,” he says. “It reduces the role of the brewer to chemistry.”

But not everyone in the land of lambic, Oud Bruin, and Flemish red is on the same page. Luc De Raedemaeker, director of the Brussels Beer Challenge and editor-in-chief of Belgium’s Bière Grand Cru magazine, recalls sampling two brews from the OneTap. Surprisingly, his take is far more positive.

“What’s really a game changer is you can adjust the alcohol level from 0 to 8.5 percent. You can adjust and select if you prefer low alcohol, no alcohol, or a classic alcohol level.”

“The beers were good, they were even perfect in a technical way,” he says. “They were clean. They were easy-drinking.”

Connoisseurs from other countries seem equally impressed. A beer sommelier with a certificate from the Doemens Academy in Munich, Roland Graber is a co-owner of Riot Act Brewing and the craft beer bar On Tap in Bern, Switzerland. He recently traveled to Belgium to taste non-alcoholic beers from the OneTap prototype in situ. Commercial NA beers often suffer from cardboard-like flavors, he says, as well as unpleasant mouthfeel and shortcomings in terms of balance. He didn’t find any such problems in versions made by the OneTap.

“They were just outstanding,” he says. “In a blind tasting, I wouldn’t have found any difference between those beers and a best-in-class non-alcoholic beer. It was really impressive.”

“We do not need to prove that we’re making the best beer, because that’s different for every single person. What we were trying to prove is that for every single person, we can make a beer that he or she likes, because it’s fully customizable.”

While it might sound like anathema to many small brewers, a machine that can turn out decent NA beers in a variety of styles could help serve a growing customer segment.

“Our problem is we have more and more customers who are asking us for non-alcoholic beers, and there are really very few on the market which match our ideas for the flavor and taste of a good beer,” he says.

Such beers don’t even have to stay non-alcoholic, since the amount of alcohol and other characteristics are adjustable.

“What’s really a game changer is you can adjust the alcohol level from zero to 8.5 percent,” Graber says. “You can adjust and select if you prefer low alcohol, no alcohol, or a classic alcohol level.”

Although the OneTap focuses on beer, the company has started looking at other drinks, including kombucha and cider, while the current prototype can also emulate some soft drinks. Graber says that he has been drinking Nestlé’s Nestea since he was a kid, but he couldn’t tell it apart from an iced tea made by the OneTap.

“I closed my eyes and took a sip of this iced tea, and it was a perfect match to a product I know from my childhood,” he says. “I’m a beer sommelier, and sensorially well educated and experienced. It was really, in all elements, a perfect match. It was very, very impressive.”

Upsides and Downsides

That all sounds great, but I can’t help thinking that, when any beer can be produced instantly, something has to go missing, especially when you consider that the OneTap has only two cartridges for hop character.

A High-Tech ‘Beer Printer’ From Belgium Wants to Digitize the Drinking Experience
Credit: Bar.on

Stan Hieronymus is the author of a number of books on beer and brewing, including “Brew Like a Monk” and “For the Love of Hops,” as well as a correspondent on hops for Craft Beer and Brewing magazine. When I ask him to describe a few of the aromas and flavors that Humulus lupulus can give to beer, he presents an entire list.

“Floral, earthy, spicy, herbal, lava, lychee, gooseberries, coconut, citrus, lemon, grapefruit, pine, tobacco, peach, mango, papaya, dank, orange marmalade, tangerine, yuzu, pineapple, white grapes, passion fruit,” he says, before pausing. “You can just stop me whenever.”

In all, hops contain something like 1,000 different chemical compounds, according to Hieronymus, not all of which have even been identified. These compounds combine in uncountable ways to create unique aromas and flavors. It seems like it would be hard to reduce those down to a couple of cartridges, or even several.

Then there’s the influence of yeast, which primarily metabolizes sugar from malt to create the alcohol in beer, though scientists are now starting to understand that it can also interact with compounds from hops, especially after dry-hopping. Simply adding hop extracts from a cartridge wouldn’t capture those aromas and flavors.

That might have something to do with one shortcoming De Raedemaeker found in the OneTap samples he tried. They were a lot like coffees from single-serve pod machines, he says, compared to espressos made by a great barista.

“For me, beer is about human interaction. Even if I’m alone in the pub, you have interactions with the barman, the bar lady, the waiter, the waitress, or the guy next to you. It’s a social gathering. And if technology is taking over, it’s cold.”

“The beers were clean, they were to style,” he says. “They were good. But for me, there was no depth. There was no complexity.”

But greater complexity might be forthcoming. While the current OneTap prototype has just six flavor cartridges and one container of malt mixture, Standaert says the next-generation OneTap Pro — slated for 2025 — should have at least 14 flavor cartridges and three malt-mix containers, which will allow it to reproduce a much larger variety of styles.

Graber sounds optimistic when he talks about possibilities of machines like the OneTap in the future, hailing the simplicity of a single machine that can reproduce sodas, lemonades, Gin & Tonic, even non-alcoholic wine, all at the push of a button. For Standaert, it’s enough to prove that people are open to the technology, and that the machine works well enough for a lot of use cases.

“We do not need to prove that we’re making the best beer, because that’s different for every single person,” he says. “What we were trying to prove is that for every single person, we can make a beer that he or she likes, because it’s fully customizable.”

Considering that the OneTap uses tap water, the sustainability gains could be significant: Transportation accounts for about 7.7 percent of the carbon footprint of a typical can of beer in the U.S., according to a study from the Beverage Industry Environmental Roundtable.

Despite that potential upside, it’s easy to imagine how the proliferation of beer printers might affect the social element of beer. Following the pandemic, a period of high inflation and other factors have already changed how people consume beer in many parts of the world.

Last year, Belgium’s per-capita beer consumption fell 5.8 percent to an all-time low, according to Brussels Signal. Czechs might famously drink the world’s largest volume of beer per capita, but they are consuming less of it, and more often at home, not in traditional pubs, as one newspaper recently reported.

When De Raedemaeker first heard about the OneTap, he says, he immediately thought of a scene from Willy Vandersteen’s “Suske en Wiske” (a.k.a. “Spike and Suzy”) comic strip, in which a character who went away from Belgium for several years returned to find his homeland completely changed. Instead of the traditional warmth of a Belgian beer café, there was no human contact. Customers simply pushed buttons to order, and robots came periodically to clear tables.

“When I heard about this new technology, that was the first thing that came to mind,” he says. “For me, beer is about human interaction. Even if I’m alone in the pub, you have interactions with the barman, the bar lady, the waiter, the waitress, or the guy next to you. It’s a social gathering. And if technology is taking over, it’s cold. There’s a distance. The human touch is gone.”

Maybe it’s the human angle that is missing. Or maybe it’s one of the chemical compounds in hops that have not yet been identified, or something created by the still-being-studied interaction between hops and yeast. Or maybe it’s just that, for many of us, the right beer at the right moment doesn’t really feel like high technology.

What it feels like, of course, is magic.

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