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Don’t Judge a Bucks Buying Clover (Part 2)

Name: Starbucks – Small Batch/Clover Service
Location: 7 Third Street, San Francisco, CA (and other locations in Boston, Seattle, Portland and the Bay Area)
Rating: 3

My previous piece was the backstory. I filled you in on the controversy surrounding Starbucks’ recent purchase of the Coffee Equipment Company and its technological wonder, the Clover 1s. Today is the action.

I visited Starbucks’ 3rd and Market Street location in downtown San Francisco for reason other than geographic convenience. I stepped inside and spied the boxy Clover at the center of a special “small batch” coffee shrine built into one end of the coffee counter. The Clover (as you can see from the photograph) is surrounded by a nice looking grinder that I didn’t (kick myself) get the name of, several bodum glass jars of “small batch” coffees, a blackboard menu, bags of “small batch” and other beans for sale, some various promotional materials with tasting notes, and a mini (2 seat) bar where you can watch the Clover and its dedicated barista in action.

I placed my order – one “tall” cup of the Kenya Gichatha-Ini and one “tall” cup of the Ethiopian Nardos. I decided on the Kenyan because it’s the most expensive and promised to have the brightest fruit notes. I decided upon the mid-priced Ethiopian because it was a darker roast and promised some highly desirable floral notes. The blackboard showed that prices for a “tall” ranged from $2.45 to $3.25 (it was somewhat more for the next size up – a venti?), yet the cashier only charged me $3.50 for both.  Go figure.

The barista handed me my two cups of coffee and I eagerly took a sip. Too hot – I buh my tun! I knew better than to drink it right away. Not only were the coffees too hot to drink, but clover-brewed coffee, tends to shine only after it cools off a bit. Reminded of that little lesson, I sat down to take some notes on the entirely of this “small batch” operation.

In addition to ordering the five small batch coffees on the Clover, you can also purchase bags of beans to take home. The bags are roast-dated and shipped to stores within a few days of roasting instead of leaving coffee to sit on shelves for months. Starbucks definition of fresh, however, may still need some work. The roast date on these bags was September 22nd: 16 days old. The generally proffered wisdom around fresh roasted coffee is consumption within 10-14 days. Some specialty roasters have pushed the limit upwards of 21 days. By those standards, I guess Starbucks makes it, but only just barely.

The coffee is vacuum sealed in full pound bags, but staff will thankfully open up and sell you coffee by the half-pound if you like. They even list prices by the half as well as full pound. The prices range from $8-13 per half pound, which is comparably priced with coffee from other high quality specialty roasters around the country. The question though is whether the coffee is actually comparable.

First up was the Kenyan. Chocolate. Maybe semi-sweet (50-60% cacao). Not burnt. Not bitter. Very sweet and tasty, but where were the promised notes of fruit?  Another sip. I found them, but they were subtle. Not your typical intensely bright Kenyan, but a more like mild version of the Kenya Gaturiri I recently finished off from Counter Culture. Did I just compare Starbucks’ coffee to Counter Culture’s? A little blackcurrent and raspberry, but dried instead of fresh. It tasted just like a good bar of chocolate with dried raspberries and blackcurrents.

Next up was the Ethiopian. Again the first mouthful was all chocolate, but a bit darker this time (60-70% cacao). A little fuller body, but still no burnt or bitter qualities. It was round, smooth and and a little less sweet than the Kenyan. Where were those promised floral notes? Second sip. Wait, lurking in the back…kaffir lime leaf? It was more herbal than floral but there was definitely something other than chocolate in there.

I have to say I liked these coffees, but I do wonder if they couldn’t be better. The barista I spoke to told me that they brew all five coffees at 202 degrees (Fahrenheit). The strength of the Clover is the ability to customize the brew temperature and timing to each specific coffee. While it’s possible that Starbucks has selected and roasted five coffees such that maximizing the potential of each requires exactly the same brewing profile, it seems highly unlikely this is so. It seems more likely, assuming my information is correct, that Starbucks has struck a balance between coffee quality and idiot proofing the process by minimizing the changes a barista needs to make between brews.

Furthermore, while the current roasting profile of these beans may be right for the typical Starbucks drinker who is used to darker roasts, the rounded, smooth, chocolately profile with limited high notes seems all wrong (and simply a little boring) for the specialty market they are pitting their coffee against where lighter, brighter roasts tend to rule the roost.  I’d be very curious to see what a different roasting profile could do for these same beans.

So despite my misgivings, I really did like these coffees. Of course, a skeptical coffee aficionado might argue that like Governor Palin at the VP debate, the bar for this visit was set so low that a simple no-gaffe performance was all it would take to earn good marks, but these coffees actually had some substance and even a bit of complexity. I would certainly order them again and encourage others to give them a try.

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6 comments to Don’t Judge a Bucks Buying Clover (Part 2)

  • Thanks for doing this. I enjoyed reading both parts. I’ve had the opportunity to taste some clover coffee that was light roasted Roasterie coffee in KC MO. I believe it was the 6 tigers aged sumatran (which doesn’t really compare all that well for high notes) The Brumas farm Costa Rican one was really top notch, and I found myself almost gulping it down.

  • Shawn

    Did you happen to find out what Starbucks considers “small batch”? As per usual w/ Starbucks, they’re lack of real info leads me to believe they’re concerned more w/ marketing their product rather than developing it.

  • Skip

    Yeah, thanks for the post. Not everyone at Starbucks is an idiot, but they have a higher calling than simply providing good brewed coffee. Hopefully this spreads out into the Jersey hinterlands soon.

  • Skip

    As for the cost–I bet the cashier didn’t know how to charge you for the Clover and just pressed the “brewed coffee” button, especially if you had a line behind you. The Starbucks point of sale software is from about 1988 and baristas get no meaningful training or instruction on how to use it. You figure out on your own the placement of and abbreviation for each product, and those things don’t always make sense.

  • “Small batch” is obviously a relative term given that Starbucks purchases something like 300 million pounds of coffee a year. In my piece on Intelligentsia, I pointed out that even this huge micro-roaster is dwarfed by Starbucks. Intelligentsia roasted only 1.5 million pounds that same year (sorry for the apples to oranges comparison but its the closest in numbers I could find). The best gauge I have on the size of these “small batches” is that Starbucks talks openly about the limited availability of their Kenyan. On their website and in stores they make clear they purchased only 93 bags. Just to clarify, those are 132 pound bags of green coffee. So assuming this is the rarest purchase, these are all still pretty good sized batches, even if they are tiny by Starbucks’ usual standards. One has to wonder why Starbucks isn’t able to negotiate more competitive volume discount to pass off to the customer if they are competing in the same market as other specialty roasters for these same coffees.

  • Nice write-up. I tried two of the coffees at the Alameda Park St. location over the weekend (the only store in the East Bay to have a Clover right now). I found some nice aromas, but taste-wise, I couldn’t get past the dark-roasted char taste. Maybe that’s what you registered as chocolate. They were certainly better than the usual brewed coffee from Sbux, but I think I’ve just become too accustomed to the lighter roasts of Blue Bottle, Stumptown, Intelligentsia, etc.

    Also, I worked for Starbucks during college, and I find trying to sit in one of their cafes and enjoy much of anything pretty much impossible anymore. The sound of the blender and screaming children just doesn’t do it for me.

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