SYNEK – A tale of acceptance

Recently my Facebook feed started filling up with people talking about SYNEK. Some people were in the homebrew community, some were other bloggers, and some were just regular guys who like beer.

Some of the people were heralding the innovation, but just as many were bashing it.

In case you don’t what the SYNEK is, I’ll tell you. Simply stated, the SYNEK is a countertop appliance that dispenses beer. Doesn’t exactly sound revolutionary does it? Heineken and Krups collaborated to create the BeerTender a few years ago that basically does the same thing.

There is one pretty significant difference.

The countertop appliance
The countertop appliance

The Krups/Heineken machine was created to dispense Heineken. There were ways to get it to dispense other 5L kegs, and even to refill the 5L kegs with homebrew. But it required conversion kits and at the end of the day you could dispense a few brands of beer and homebrew.

The vision behind SYNEK lies in openness. They want to make it easy for brewers, bars, growler stations, and homebrewers to fill their bags and give the consumer endless choices.

But wait… don’t we already have endless choices? The answer to that is – kind of.

The founders of SYNEK recognize that the next phase of craft beer is the local brewer. Many of these brewers don’t have a bottling or canning line. They rely on keg distribution and growler fills at the brewery taproom. But SYNEK feels, as do others, that the growler is now outdated, and that we require something more in keeping with the conveniences of modern life. Splitting the difference between the growler and the kegerator is the SYNEK.

So if you are jumping out of your seat ready to back their Kickstarter campaign, you can stop reading now. There’s no more information you need, you’ve been sold. If you’re more like me, you might still require some convincing.

The first hurdle for many is the question, what’s wrong with my growler?

Maybe not too much. Really depends on how fast you drink from your growler. If you consume the contents in 48 hours it should be a good representation of what the brewer intended. If not, you will start to see the beer get flat, then oxidized. Not at all what the brewer intended. I love growlers, but for me to get a growler filled I have to drive 30 minutes or more. I tend to buy a few growlers, and I find the first one is awesome, but subsequent ones are not quite as good.

How the SYNEK handles oxidation is one of my favorite selling points. The bags should contain no oxygen prior to filling. During the fill process very little, if any oxygen should be placed into the bag. Then once in the bag there is a lining in the bag to absorb any oxygen that does get in. Genius. Now you can buy multiple gallons of beer to take home without the fear of it degrading over the next week or more.

That’s a high level idea of why you might want to retire your growler, but let’s analyze this from the intended areas of acceptance – The retailer/brewery, the homebrewer, consumer, and finally the regulator.

Retailer/Brewery Perspective

The retailer or brewer might see a few other things inferior about the growler. Besides the beer quickly degrading in quality, the reseller needs to have a good number of empty growlers on hand to sell to the public. Or at least enough for those who aren’t having their own refilled. For a brewer, this isn’t that much of a headache, since breweries are usually in large spaces where the storage of 50 or 100 growlers isn’t difficult. Taprooms are another animal all together. Many are in urban areas, where space is at a premium, and the storage of lots of empty glass isn’t their favorite way to use precious storage space.

As I previously touched on, startup brewers may not be investing the $200,000+ to put in a full bottling or canning line. Many are going the route of mobile canning, but even that can be cost prohibitive to many brewers, especially those on the nano scale. This provides an avenue to get a high quality, controlled beer into the consumer’s home.

As a retailer there aren’t many good reasons to not support this product, as there is very little risk.

SYNEK has stated that they will provide bag filling adapters free of charge, and the cost to have a couple cases of branded bags around will be nominal. From what I understand more than ½ the cost of an empty growler.

Homebrewer Perspective

The selling points get a little more muddled at this level. Homebrewers, for the most part, hate bottling. Cleaning, sanitizing, drying, capping repeated 50 times for just a 5 gallon batch of beer. This part of homebrewing is by far the least satisfying part of homebrewing.

So to remove this tedious task from homebrewing, many homebrewers have invested in kegging. This takes the process of cleaning and sanitizing 50 bottles and reduced it to 1 keg. A big help. But to do this you need to convert an old refrigerator or freezer, or invest in a kegerator. Not an insignificant investment.

The SYNEK creates a kind of mid-point between bottling and kegging. There is still the investment of a countertop unit, and you aren’t going to be able to force carbonate, however you will be able to prime in the bags. You will also be able to completely cut out the cleaning and sanitization of bottles and use 5 – 1 gallon bags. That will add about $10+ to a batch of beer since the bags are single use, but you will save on bottle trees and sanitizer. I’m not saying it will be cheaper than bottling in the long run, but the time savings alone will be a big advantage.

As SYNEK pointed out to me on a phone call, many of the homebrewers that are interested in this route are the homebrewers that might not be able to have a kegerator. Whether it’s because of limited space, or a reluctant significant other.

I’m not going to say the SYNEK is superior to kegging, because it isn’t. You aren’t going to be able to effectively dry hop in the bag for example. And while they state you can ferment in the bag, I don’t know if I would unless I was trying to experiment with different yeast strains, fermentation temperatures, or if I just wanted to brew a 1 gallon batch. This system does offer a mid-point solution, much like it does for the professional brewer.

Consumer Perspective

Consumer acceptance in another story altogether. While some are comparing this to the Keurig, I feel that is a poor comparison. This doesn’t make beer, it repackages beer.

I am a child of the 80s. I grew up on MTV and mix tapes. The analog tape was horrible for music, but it had a couple of things going for it. It was portable, and recordable. After the CD was released, everyone began to really notice just how bad tapes sounded, and new formats started cropping up. DAT which had even higher quality than CD, but lacked instant track access. MiniDisc which while slightly lower quality than CD, but had the convenience of CD in a protected package. Neither format really took off. While this seems like a tangent that doesn’t make a lot of sense, there are similarities.

Recordable media is a way to repackage music, much like the SYNEK repackages beer. Now you aren’t going to make a mix bag of 3 different beers in one bag, but I guess you could. The idea is that there is a capital investment to enjoy the NEW product, and whether the consumer will invest in that piece of equipment to enjoy it.

The acceptance of this product at the consumer level is what will make or break SYNEK. How many people will spend $300 to put a countertop device to dispense beer? For many it will be how well breweries support it, and as I said earlier, SYNEK is taking big strides to make this a low risk endeavor for retailers.

As a homebrewer that has already invested in a kegerator, I am not among the primary target audience of the SYNEK. It is however, still very intriguing. My kitchen counter top is a bit crowded these days. Coffee maker, coffee grinder, Keurig, Toaster, Blender, etc. I don’t think I could allocate space for yet another counter top device. But what I would like to see is an unpowered way to dispense SYNEK bags. First of all, this would make for a significantly cheaper product, as compressors are expensive. But a box with a CO2 cartridge to be placed in my refrigerator, much like a boxed white wine, would be a great alternative. From what I hear SYNEK is at least receptive to the idea. It might not ever happen, but I was happy to hear that they are considering something similar for the future.

Regulatory Perspective

I hate to mention this aspect, but considering alcohol will be placed in these bags, it is not an aspect that can be ignored. Every state, county, municipality, and even the federal government has a hand in how alcohol is handled. I previously wrote about growlers, and how the growler law in Maryland was implemented in a haphazard manner. I was happy to see these laws changed to be friendlier to the consumer.

When writing this, I began reviewing the most recent laws on the books to get an understanding of how my home state of Maryland would deal with this product.

There are a few primary constraints that are provided.

-The vessel be larger than 32oz and no larger than 128oz.
-The vessel will be labeled with a licensed reseller, government warning, and cleaning instructions.

So at one gallon (128oz) it falls within the constraints of being filled at a retailer. SYNEK shared that they will offer bags imprinted with logos, and government warnings.

But the silly constraint of cleaning instructions? The bags are meant to be single use, so is this really required? I don’t think it’s required on growlers either, as none of my plates or reusable food containers have cleaning instructions imprinted on them.

The reasoning for or against cleaning instructions brings another thought to mind. These are single use. Current growler legislation is written completely to cover refillable containers, and make no mention of single use packages.

As we all know, legislation doesn’t move at the speed of business without prodding. SYNEK told me that they are in the process of reaching out to legislators throughout the country to remedy some of these concerns. They feel they should be able to be used anywhere growlers are used today.

Final Thoughts

At first glance, I thought this Kickstarter project was about the countertop dispenser. With some help from SYNEK I learned that the real product here is the bag. There are 4 patents pending on the bag design alone. The ability of the bag to hold carbonated beverages, and its genius way of handling oxygen alone make it very intriguing at the least.

My only concern is that the public doesn’t always embrace a product even if it is the best or most innovative. The jury is still out on whether the SYNEK is the best in that middle tier (bigger than a bottle, smaller than a keg) of beer packaging, but I am hoping that it succeeds. I think it can certainly find a place in the beer market, and be a welcome addition to the home of many beer lovers. If you don’t get in on the Kickstarter save your 20% off Bed Bath & Beyond coupons as I have a feeling you will soon see this on the shelves – pretty close to the Keurig.