Sunday, October 12, 2008

Coffee and Clover, Over and Over.

The Starbucks in Wayland Square is one of the first *$s in the country to get the coffee machine mentioned in hushed reverence among the coffee elite, the Clover. It is one of 80 that are supposed to be rolled out by the end of 2008 and premiered a short time ago on September 9th. I figured Rhode Island wouldn't get any, so was shocked when I saw a sign at another Schtarbucken announcing the arrival. I hot-footed it over to Wayland Square to commune with Jesus. (Sorry for the abysmal picture quality. Starbucks wouldn't allow me to take photos, so I had to surreptitiously take photos with a cell phone.)

Starbucks is pushing the Clover hard. They have dedicated a large amount of counter space to the machine, grinder, and signage announcing the various beans available for brew. They've also implemented a fair degree of theater. Instead of the hiding the machine behind counter and glass, or placing it on the back counter, far from eyes of the customers, the machine is front and center.

My service was impeccable. The barista was friendly, talked my ear off about the coffee and the machine, and brewed multiple cups just to let me try. It was amazing how difficult it was to get other people to just try the new coffee. It's free coffee, people! I was also fortunate to arrive just as a pot of Starbucks Anniversary Roast was finishing brewing, so I was able to make a direct comparison between the Clover and fresh, standard brew.

My first cup was the El Salvador Pacamara. It was a very bright coffee, especially considering its Latin American root. I wasn't terribly impressed, frankly. It had citrusy notes to it, but I tasted almost no chocolate. As many coffee fanatics have pointed out, this could be because of the beans. Starbucks is a massive corporation that just can't move single-origin beans around its massive supply chain quickly. With that in mind, I'll hold off judgment on the machine for this one.

Since the Anniversary Roast had just been brewed, I was able to compare the ordinary brew to the Clover. Most of Starbucks' blends aren't the best. They're blended, packed, stored, and kept for weeks. Many, if not most, of the terroir of the beans that the Clover is supposedly an A-student at bringing out are lost. Still, I'm comparing like to like, so I think this is still a valid test.

The verdict? The Clover was better. Still, certain things must be taken into account. Starbucks coffee has been the butt of jokes for a very long time. This to the point of losing to McDonalds in a taste test. So Starbucks drip isn't the best comparo.

Also, it wasn't that much better. The notes of the coffee weren't brought out because of finer definition or clarity of flavor, but instead because the brightness was toned down. It was a mellower coffee. This allowed the flavors to come out much more clearly.

My third cup was the one I purchased. the Costa Rica Agrivid. This one seemed to respond to the steeping process of the Clover better than the previous two beans. The Clover flier lists cocoa and lemon as the primary notes and, lo, they were right. Citrus and a very strong and rich cocoa flavor were right on target.

So, in the end, I came away whelmed. Starbucks is charging about double for the Clover coffee, which still isn't terribly expensive, and it's certainly worth it to pay extra for a single-cup brewing method. From a commercial standpoint, it does have value. It's fast. It's clean. It's theatrical. If Starbucks can make a case for it, it could be the ticket to them again being seen as high-quality. Unfortunately, it may require a far greater degree of training and quality control than Starbucks is prepared to achieve. For example, the barista broke the stream of water as it poured into the chamber. A BIG no-no, according to the creator of the Clover. This can drop the temperature of the water a couple of degrees and have a "massive effect on the extraction of chemicals that affect flavor." (Wired Magazine)

If this was a consumer-level product, I would declare it a total rip-off. Remember, this puppy cost $11,000 before Starbucks bought up the company. And what it does could be replicated at home with a little ingenuity and $20 worth of kitchen stuff from Bed Bath & Beyond. Or just a French press. The best cup of coffee I've ever had was brewed by an old, Portuguese woman, and the mighty clover falls to that as well. In the Wired Magazine article about the Clover, the general idea of the clover is explained; if you want to buy coffee beans, be it Blue Mountain, or Kopi Luwak, that cost a fucking fortune, you want a machine that won't mess them up. Great logic. But that caters to a minuscule part of the population. I adore coffee, and even I don't care.

And the machine doesn't even come close to making a case for itself. They say that what you're really paying for is the ability to design custom brew cycles for whatever kind of bean you're using. Specific temperature, time, and bang. But my already stupid-expensive Jura Capresso Z5 is one-forth the cost and DOES MORE. And being able to choose a temperature? Try an electric kettle with a built in thermistor and gauge. I will admit that for a cafe, the sheer speed with which it prepares a cup is to die for. French press requires steeping the coffee for a few minutes. And the theater is quite cool, as the barista delicately stirs the coffee.

But as far as theater goes, a cafe can do better. Try a siphon bar. I've seen one in action at some cafe in Connecticut. You may have seen one, it looks like a distilling setup for making small amounts of moonshine. Or some magic potion. When it comes to theater, there is nothing that even comes close to this jawdroppingly wacky contraption. And if you think eleven grand is bad, try twenty. That's how much a Japanese model of these runs ya'. The machine mentioned in the New York Times article is only from one company, and you can get them from others, but they're still absurdly expensive. Furthermore, I have yet to see a machine that makes anything appreciably better than some good french press.

I'm a gourmet, certainly, but I'm not a ridiculous gourmet. I don't think $1,000 wine is worth it. Wagyu beef tastes inferior to a good prime steak. And chocolate is chocolate, as long as it's good. You pay extra for espresso because it's impossible to make good espresso without an expensive machine. Coffee is another story. If you want good coffee, you can brew it at home, and for all of Clover's ingenuity and convenience, it never gets past that.

The Coffee Fix: Can the $11,000 Clover Machine Save Starbucks?

At Last, a $20,000 Cup of Coffee (May require registration. If so, just go to and get some sign-in info.)


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