Some coffee shops rebel with Starbucks' acquisition of pricey coffee maker

Saturday, March 29, 2008

An $11,000 coffee maker ought to make a damn fine cup of coffee.

And it does. So fine and so nuanced, in fact, the coffee world has been buzzing for months over how the Clover coffee machine would revolutionize the coffee shop industry and how Americans view drip java.

Trouble is, lately the Clover and its new corporate owner have brewed more controversy than coffee.

Once the domain of independent shops looking to distinguish themselves from big chains, the Clover now belongs to Starbucks Corp. In a deal of still undisclosed terms, the Seattle coffee behemoth acquired the machine's maker, Seattle-based Coffee Equipment Co., earlier this month.

Suddenly, some of that revolutionary luster seems lost.

Soon after Starbucks announced the buyout at its recent shareholders meeting -- as well as plans to stop selling the machine to others -- the blogosphere lit up with angst-ridden talk of independents threatening to jettison their Clovers.

Some, like Portland, Ore.-based Stumptown Coffee Roasters, are yanking their Clovers, saying they didn't want to have to write Starbucks checks when their equipment gets s erviced.

Others, such as Zoka Coffee Roaster and Tea Co. in Seattle, are standing by their machines.

"We think it's a great device," said Wes Buckwalter, Zoka's marketing manager. "Whether Starbucks owns it or not really doesn't affect us."

Stumptown had no trouble finding a buyer for the five Clovers it's selling. As soon as word hit the street that the machines were available, calls and e-mails poured in, said Matt Lounsbury, Stumptown's director of operations.

Stumptown probably could have profited from Starbucks' decision to stop selling Clovers by charging a premium for these suddenly hard-to-get coffee makers.

But Lounsbury said the company wasn't interested in gouging anyone. The machines are going to Chicago-based Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea, Inc.; Lounsbury wouldn't say for how much.

Starbucks currently has Clovers in two Seattle stores and three in Boston. The company hasn't disclosed how much it paid to buy The Coffee Equipment Company, or when and where Clovers will roll out next, only that they'll first be added in select U.S. markets, then gradually overseas.

At the company's shareholders meeting March 19, Howard Schultz, Starbucks' chairman and chief executive officer, raved that the Clover makes the best cup of coffee he's ever tasted and said it will be a challenge figuring out where they go, because every store manager wants one.

While the acquisition roils the specialty coffee industry and invigorates the tired debate over Starbucks vs. the little guy, there's still plenty of agreement that the Clover has given coffee a giant push further away from its status as a wake-me-up commodity.

Before the buyout, the Clover was being used in about 90 coffee shops in the U.S. and more than 200 worldwide. Making coffee on the device -- which brews a cup at a time -- is like using the most expensive French press, flipped on its head.

Using a complex brew process, the boxy black and silver Clover aims to coax each of the hundreds of flavors known to reside in the average coffee bean. The menu board behind the Clover at one Seattle Starbucks reads like it was written by wine connoisseur -- comparing the "spicy, cedar notes and syrupy body" of the Aged Sumatra with the "dazzling spice, cocoa, wine and berry flavors" of the Arabian Mocha Sanani.

To brew in the Clover, a barista grinds coffee beans by the cup, then pours them into the brew chamber. The machine sends in a blast of hot water before a piston lifts and pushes down a filter, sending the coffee out through a dispenser.

Some aficionados complain the Clover makes coffee lacking in body. But Danny O'Neill, owner of The Roasterie coffee roasting company in Kansas City, Mo., says it amplifies a bean's complex flavors much like high-end stereo equipment reveals sounds lost on AM radio.

"I wouldn't be pretentious enough to say that the Clover is going to revolutionize the way coffee is brewed across North America in the coming years, but for those of us who just want an extraordinary cup of coffee ... it's within reach," O'Neill says.

Before Starbucks' acquisition of the Clover, some independent shops replaced their entire drip offerings with multiple Clovers -- a coffee connoisseur's dream.

"Once you can convince somebody to shell out the money, it's kind of an eye-opening moment when they taste the flavors that are described to them, something that usually doesn't happen with the average drip coffee," says Eric Norby, 19, a student in Lincoln, Neb., who's had Clover coffee in Chicago and O'Neill's shop in Kansas City.

The machine's by-the-cup versatility means a wider array of beans are potentially at its disposal at any time -- creating a sort of more specific menu of coffees. And like good wine, coffee made on the Clover tends to be top-shelf stuff.

For instance, a pound of green (unroasted) coffee that costs $10 at an auction would sell at retail for somewhere around $40 -- or $3 to $4 for an 8-ounce cup from the Clover, says Mark Prince, senior editor of coffeegeek.com. Some shops have been known to sell a 12-ounce cup off the Clover for $20 or more.

Until now, these sorts of prices have meant most Americans don't live near a shop that has a Clover. Pretty soon they may have one on every corner.

That would come as welcome news to some of the customers barista Mike Campbell serves at a Starbucks in Seattle's Queen Anne neighborhood. Campbell said some people who got hooked on Clover coffee when it was being tested on the other side of town now make a half-hour drive to get their fix.

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