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December 5th, 2008

Strange how Starbucks went from pretentious to proletarian in a decade.  Now they’re trying to turn it around.

The hipsters and yuppies have moved on, and now nobody thinks anything of seeing somebody walking around with a Starbucks cup.  Independent coffee houses are the new rage.

To paraphrase the Starbucks CEO, Starbucks lost its focus.  They replaced the manual espresso machines with automated contraptions.  They started selling music.  They added breakfast sandwiches to their menu.  Now most of that is gone, but where does salvation lie?

Enter the Clover machine.  It’s an $11,000 contraption that is designed to brew better coffee, one cup at a time.  By precisely controlling water temperature and brewing time, the Clover aims to maximize flavor and minimize undesireable bitterness.  Starbucks liked Clover so much that they bought the company.

I happen to like Starbucks.  Yes, yes… better coffee can be had elsewhere, but I don’t go to Starbucks for the coffee.  I go there to get work done.  The combination of ample sitting space, lots of power outlets, and ready access to affordable caffeine is a recipe for productivity — a combination, I might add, that is astonishingly lacking in the Palo Alto area.  All of the other likely options close early, have obscene prices, or both.

So it was that I found myself working in a Starbucks this afternoon.

I was sitting at the counter, reading academic papers about image deblurring, when one of the employees started teaching another employee how to use the store’s brand-new Clover machine right in front of me.  They went through the steps, adding grounds, entering the right settings, and dispensing the brew into a cup.  When finished, they offered me the freshly brewed coffee.  I had never tried one of the Clover products, so I accepted.

I’m not really a coffee snob, but I thought it was a very good cup of coffee.  Lots of bold complexity in the flavor, great smell, and almost no bitterness. Yes, very good.  But was it the machine or was it the beans?  Or did I just get lucky?  I decided to find out by ordering another cup.

In hindsight, I should have tested the quality of the Clover brew by doing a blind comparison with the same beans brewed both traditionally and Clover-style.  Barring that, I should at least have ordered the same coffee as the previous time, which would have allowed a test of consistency.  Instead, I ordered a completely different flavor.

The new coffee brought nothing but disappointment.  Yes, it went through the magic machine, but what came out was bitter and bland.  I suspect that operator error might have contributed to the let-down, but that just indicates that the robustness of the process is questionable.  I don’t think that I’ll trying that expensive experiment again.

Clover, will you save Starbucks?  Let’s put it this way: I’ll continue to patronize Starbucks for the ambiance, not the coffee.

  1. December 5th, 2008 at 07:29 | #1

    I buy my beans from independent roasters, but if I’m not at home, Starbucks is my place of choice, for price, convenience, and consistency of quality (and, often, if we’re traveling, it is our *only* option).

    But, $4 for brewed coffee (at least, that’s what the independent in your linked article charges for a cup of Clover-brewed coffee)?

    I don’t think so, Tim.

    Also, does this purchase of Clover have anything to do with why Starbucks now serves the very-pedestrian Pike Place roast as their only option for brewed coffee?

  2. Angela Sylvester
    December 5th, 2008 at 15:41 | #2

    My friend Andrew uses the Clover at his coffee shop in St. Paul. I have yet to have a bad cup, so I’m sure operator error is to blame. And he tests it with each new bean to find the best brew settings… I’m not sure Starbucks will be so meticulous. We’ll go when you’re in town, and I can show you the coffee-light.

  3. December 8th, 2008 at 14:32 | #3

    What Angela said. Because I want to go, too, and going with you guys gives me an excuse to go all the way to St. Paul for a cup of coffee. ;p

    I prefer Dunn Brothers, especially because they’ll often charge me for just a refill (like 50-65 cents!) when I bring in my own travel cup (always).

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