The first time engineer Phil Petracca poured the designers at Frog a glass of beer, it was from his backpack. Inside was a prototype of Fizzics, a 3D-printed device that infuses good old canned beer with a foamy mouthfeel more akin to beer out of a tap.
It wasn’t his first trip to Frog's studio: Petracca had worked with Frog’s design team before, as part of the original launch team of Sirius Satellite Radio. And it wouldn’t be his last, either, because after he and his partner successfully designed, crowdfunded, and shipped Fizzics—a Sodastream for beer that enhances the carbonation in anything from cans to growlers—and got it into 1,300 retail stores, Frog decided it could help take it mainstream.
FrogVentures, the company's startup arm, invested an undisclosed amount of capital in the company—and maybe more importantly, brought the Fizzics team in for a three-month makeover of the product. The result of that design sprint is on Kickstarter today as the Fizzics Waytap ($100 for $130 MSRP), the second generation countertop device that’s slimmer, sharper, and cheaper.
To report this story, Fizzics sent me its first generation device, as their second isn't actually on the market yet. A single beer into testing, and it was obvious how much room there was to improve. The device is the size of a well-fed bathroom waste can, with a plastic body that doesn’t help remove that image from your head. Unlatching the top, it’s a careful balancing act to place a bottle inside its cavernous chamber. Then the system requires you to feed a plastic tube into the bottle/can/growler and close the top, in a maneuver that feels nothing short of clinical, like I’m feeding a breathing tube into my beer. And when you pull the tap, the whole unit buzzes with a strange whir that sounds more like a power screwdriver than the velvety friction of hops on glass.
As for the foamy nectar that flows from tap? It’s good. The bubbles from the beer are retained with a slightly fizzier mouthfeel that I could appreciate. And with a pull of the tap in the opposite direction, I could finish the glass off with a generous layer of foam. Was there more aroma than in the can as claimed? Sure. Maybe. How much of this is suggested is honestly hard to tell, but I believe my glass of Spaten Oktoberfest was better with the Fizzics than without it. Just, you know, not mind-meltingly-worth-this-$150-garbage-can-on-my-kitchen-counter better.
"Keep in mind this first one came to market remarkably fast. [Two founders] were on their own, designing, 3D printing, ordering tooling, and shipping," says Jonas Damon, executive creative director at Frog. "They couldn't afford to have any problems with it. They couldn't do extensive testing with it. By their own admission, they’d call the engineering brute force."
But FrogVentures works pretty fast, too. While Frog will typically spend months, or years, working to present companies with design and research in often grand, Don Draper-esque spectacles that may be ultimately accepted, rejected, or ignored by the client, Ventures works differently. The Fizzics team actually embedded inside Frog to work side by side on the project together, with no big surprises or reveals, which meant the end goal was realized faster.
"We prioritize progress over process," says Damon. "The larger established companies, they really play to not lose. They need tons of validational research. They seek to mitigate risk. Fizzics and our other Ventures projects are playing to win. They’re trying to maximize their potential. And as such we can dive straight into design and work to get to market as fast as possible."
"We don’t iterate and iterate and iterate," he adds a moment later. "If we land on something we all feel comfortable about, we freeze that and set to tackle the next thing."
The original Fizzics was over-engineered to ensure nothing went wrong in the beer chamber’s pressurization process, with ski boot-style latches on top, and a sizable external hinge. It’s all plastic, but it’s big plastic. "We obviously had the benefit to have this [original] one to test with," says Damon. "So we could focus more on the user experience rather than the pure functionality on it."
The first change was to invert the way a bottle is loaded into the machine. Rather than spelunking a beer into a dark hole—an experience Damon says humans have a natural aversion to—the beer is simply placed onto a platform, and the machine’s cylindrical pressurization chamber is placed on top. The medical-style tube was replaced with a metal one, which I’m told feels significantly better than the original and allows one-handed operation. Many of the machine’s touch points were replaced with more premium materials, like metal. And most of all, the new Fizzics is only about one-third of the size of the original—and $30 cheaper, too.
That last point required the Fizzics to give up some functionality. It no longer accepts growlers, because growlers require the entire machine’s casing to be larger—meaning it’s really designed to pop in a single-serving can or bottle of beer.
"We came out of crowdsourcing, so we were able to connect with an amazing community that will do large-format bottles and 64 oz. growlers. But as soon as we went to retail, we found, they primarily drink out of cans and 12 oz. bottles. That was how 80% of the beer market is still consuming beer," says Petracca. "So our focus was a device with a smaller footprint, and we focused tremendously on ease of use."
But such is the difference between a product designed for beer nerds placing a preorder on Kickstarter and the realities of optimizing a product to be as appealing as possible for the largest market possible.
Even without having tried the new Fizzics, the system looks dramatically improved following the FrogVentures makeover. And with two beer products under their belts, the Fizzics team is considering how technology could be applied to improve the sensation of eating all sorts of foods. For instance, when I ask if a nitro-style coffee maker could be in the works (note: the Fizzics doesn’t carbonate coffee—of course I tried) the team says little, but advises me to stay tuned for more news outside the sphere of beer in 2017.