Q&A: David Pepin (Aylmer, QC), developer of Homebrew Helper for Google Home

CHA: How long have you been homebrewing? And where are you based out of?

Pepin: I’m based in Aylmer, Québec. I started homebrewing about 4 years ago. It quickly became a passion, as I tried to understand all the details of each step, and how they affected the final product. I never brewed with extract—I jumped directly to all grain, BIAB-style. I was initially doing small batches (concentrated batches of about 2.5 gallons, that I diluted to 4 gallons). I upgraded to kegging after about a year, and then I bought a Grainfather. For personal reasons, I decided to cut back quite significantly on my beer consumption, so I sold all my fancy equipment, and only kept the basic stuff to do small batches once in a while. But I’m still passionate about the process. 

CHA: Why did you decide to create a brewing voice assistant? 

Pepin: I started as homebrewing blog (in French) about 2 years ago (desgrainsauverre.com). This was a fun project, but I was kind of running out of ideas, especially since I was brewing way less often. Then, last winter, for my job (I work as a web content designer in the federal public service), I experimented with building a voice assistant. As I was learning the promises and the pitfalls of voice interaction, I started to think about what kind of voice assistants I could build on my own. It struck me on my vacation this summer: I could build voice assistant for homebrewing tasks! I then started asking questions on forums and email lists, to try to see what people could be looking for, and I started building it. Initially, my intention was simply to keep learning about voice assistants and how they work. After a few weeks, I thought what I had built was good enough to see if I could bring it to “production level”. 

CHA: How hard was it to create a brewing voice assistant?

Pepin: It’s quite complex, but not as hard as you would think! I used a software called DialogFlow (owned by Google). The idea is to build “conversations”: you find out what people would ask, and you try to build the conversation flow that would need to happen to provide a proper response. Some of the coding (and math!) needed to get answers was a major challenge for me—I usually work with words, not code! But it was a nice learning experience. 

In my mind, the main challenge is this: because people use their voice, they expect the bot to be smarter than it is in reality. They expect it to understand what they say, including all subtleties, to remember all small pieces of information, and act accordingly. There are a few things you can do as a “conversation designer” to help set expectations and “repair” conversations, but it’s not simple. I’m still learning. If you’re interested, there are tons of tutorials and forum threads out there. Have fun! 

CHA: How’s the response so far as far as you can tell? 

Pepin: It’s been interesting. I got comments ranging from Terminator and Skynet, to “cool, I may need a Google Mini in my brew room!”. I personally think it works quite well for relatively simple tasks, like converting a gravity reading, calculating ABV, getting the colour range of a Belgian Dubbel, etc. The main challenge is awareness: I shared it on some home brewing forums, but I’m not sure how to get people to use it! If many people use it, and rate it well, then Google’s algorithm may suggest it more often if people use their voice to ask for some of these tasks. That’s, I guess, one weakness of these specific assistants: within the Google Assistant, they need to be “invoked”. If I one day port this to Alexa, it’ll be a similar problem: people would need to install the Alexa Skill. 

CHA: Anything else you’d like to add? 

Pepin: One cool thing is that there are different ways you can invoke and use it:

1) You can say “Ok Google, Talk to Homebrew Helper”, and follow the prompts – this lets you discover what it can do or not.

2) You can say “Ok Google, Talk to Homebrew Helper”, and then directly ask a specific question, if you know what you’re looking for, like “Convert 1050”, “Help me reach my final gravity”, or “What are the typical ingredients of a Munich Helles”.

3) You can ask your question directly at the invocation stage: “OK Google, ask Homebrew Helper why my beer tastes like cardboard”, or “Ok Google, ask Homebrew Helper for the color range of an american lager”

Currently, here’s the list of what you can do:

Make conversions

You can make several conversions. For example, things like:

  • convert gravity
  • convert 8 brix
  • 10 kg in lbs
  • what’s 12°C in °F
  • convert 5 gallons in liters
  • adjust gravity measure for temperature

Help with your own home brew

You can get help with specific questions about your own home brew. For example:

  • identify an off flavour
  • why does my beer taste like cardboard
  • calculate relative bitterness
  • help me reach my target gravity
  • will I need to add DME

Information on beer styles

You can ask for information about official beer styles. For example:

  • describe a Munich helles
  • what’s the target gravity for a quadrupel
  • how many IBUS in an American lager
  • what is the colour of an altbier
  • typical ingredients of a witbier
  • commercial examples of American barleywine

General questions

You can ask some general questions on beer and home brewing. The set of questions that have an answer is limited so far, but it’s growing! For example:

  • how is beer made
  • what is attenuation
  • how are sugars extracted from grain
  • what’s a good fermentation temperature

Here’s a video of how Homebrew Helper works.

Kathy Yan Li is a director of the Canadian Homebrewers Association, and lives in Shilo, MB with her husband and dog Barkley. She is always looking for Canadian homebrewing and brewing content, so feel free to get in touch with her with ideas and suggestions.

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