Tuesday, February 10, 2009

I Think I'll Keep Mine on Top of My Guinness

I had my first Clover-brewed coffee today; wandering around Valencia Street in San Francisco, I came upon a coffee shop called Ritual, which had the machine. I suppose I’d heard about it some time back; I saw a video of it or something along those lines, then there was the huge thing about Starbucks actually buying the company that makes the Clover in a very Bank of America, sprawling mass of ooze fashion.

What is a clover? It's a machine that brews single cup coffee; the idea being that each cup is brewed fresh and to order at highly specific conditions, temperatures and brew times, rather than the traditional brewing of a large batch, which is then stored in a thermal container and poured as needed. Since coffee, flavor and caffeine are extracted under optimal conditions, it’s the coffee nerd’s dream, right?

Well, not necessarily. For starters, since Starbucks bought the entire company, it may be difficult getting good coffee via Clover. Even if you can’t be bothered to care about the corporate take over of every corner worldwide by Starbucks, the use of clover by Starbucks seems a bit like McDonald’s using a cryovac machine and sous vide techniques to gently cook a Filet-O-Fish. After all, as the barista in Ritual said in our conversation today, “It’s still Starbucks coffee!” Mass purchased and over roasted to reach a lowest common denominator of global consistency. (Update: See smallerdemon's comments below this post for some clarification on the beans Starbucks uses for it's Clover brews) Nevertheless, it seems like some places are using the Clover still, though I haven’t come across one in Chicago yet (though I do tend to stick to my one or two coffee shops, I think I heard that Intelligentsia uses them, so maybe this whole post is old news to some of you).

BUT you didn’t come here to read about my political views, so let’s move on. The coffee I had brewed in the Clover came from Ethiopia, and was roasted in the Ritual storefront. Which is a big deal to me--I feel like there are a lot of great little coffee houses, and some may even use really good, well sourced and roasted coffee, but too often this is not the case. So I always love when I’m somewhere that I know the coffee was roasted there, and not too long before. I suppose I never really understood the love of Illy coffee; I’m sure it’s great in Italy, and it’s not that it’s terrible here, but an ocean, thousands of miles, and how ever many months later, how good can it still be? And I’m not so sure I really trust a company that prepackages espresso into tea bag-like pods for speed and ease. We all know that’s not what good food and drink is about.

Okay. No more agendas. Really.

Anyway, the coffee was great--clean (which is such a big deal to me, no raw edgy stomach full of acid headache feeling afterwards); transparent, in that aroma and taste were clear, and unintentional bitterness absent. (Side story: Despite San Francisco being warmer than 9 degree Chicago, it is still San Francisco. As Mark Twain famously said, "The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco." Plus, I didn’t have a lid. (Side-side story: I usually don’t use a lid--the thought process being that coffee is pretty much based on aroma. Plug your nose and have a sip of black coffee. You taste sour and bitter. None of that great coffee aroma is there, because you’re blocking it all with your plugged nose. So why cover all that with a lid, leaving the only option for aroma in the hands of whatever sneaks up the back of your sinus when you swallow?)) All that said, the coffee got cold towards the end, but I drank it cold. And there was nary a trace of bitterness.

I had asked the barista if it was a pain to use the Clover, especially since their set up consisted of a normal coffee bar on one side, and the Clover over on the other side of the room, on the other side of the cash register. She said no, and, duh, it actually made sense--for the Clover, a barista measures coffee, grinds it, puts it in the machine, adjusts the settings, and pushes a button. The other baristas were making espresso drinks: grinding, packing, extracting, steaming, frothing, mixing, etc. So that made sense.

On the Clover, a circular platform on which the ground coffee beans sit descends into the sleek stainless steel machine, much like Han Solo did into his deep freeze on Jabba the Hut’s weird ship. Water is heated and added, the coffee brewed into the appropriately sized cup. That’s it. The spent coffee comes back up on the platform, looking much like old Han after his thaw, and gets squeegeed off into a container for trash (or, if you live somewhere like SF, for compost). That’s it. And here's a video of it that I found on Youtube (I didn't make this video, so I can't claim any sort of cinematography credits here).

Again, it tasted great. But it could be a bit pricey. Mine was on the lower end available at $3.00 for a 12 ounce cup (the price depends on the beans used). So it’s not like it’s that much, but percentage wise, we’re talking about a 50% increase from a $2 cup. No refills either. So maybe the whole thing is a bit too esoteric for it’s own good (I was the only person in this crowded coffee shop getting coffee made this way; I actually thought that the machine was broken at first), and maybe Starbucks jumped on it too soon. I suppose we’ll see. And personally, I really love the process of a French press, and the imperfections of things done manually. I’m not convinced that machine-eliminated nuances are the direction to head. So for now, I’ll appreciate good roasting of good beans done locally and brewed however they come. Because good brewing is really just an extension of the care put into good growing and good roasting, and it’s not all about snobbery, or the just as bad anti-snobbery, is it?