How the Clover could change the way we think about coffee.

Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
March 5 2008 6:58 AM

Could a Coffee Maker Be Worth $11,000?

How the Clover is changing the way we think about coffee.

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But this strategy doesn't seem to work: The third cup, brewed with the same parameters as the second, is thin, with none of the previous transporting scents. I recklessly crank the temperature to 210 degrees, and the coffee that squirts out is dramatically different—it could pass for a different bean. The complex jasmine notes that distinguished the cups so far are gone, replaced by a delicate wininess that reminds me of Kalamata olives. I wonder: Could I brew a cup with the jasmine and the olives side by side?

I'm becoming a Clover addict, just as I feared. It's not the tasty coffee itself that's drawing me in—although that caffeine euphoria certainly colors my mood. It's the joy of tinkering, really delving into the possibilities of a coffee bean in a way I've never considered before. After several more cups, each with their own quirks, it's time to go: The baristas have finished sweeping up around our feet and are clearly eager to leave. But there's one more cup I want to try: I dial in the same settings that produced cup No. 2, the greatest success so far. Forty-four seconds later, there it is, the exact same delicate, floral-scented brew I remember. That's the consistency you pay for.

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The immediate consequence of the Clover and its precision isn't necessarily better coffee, but more attention to coffee. By creating this rigorous laboratorylike brewing environment, it encourages cafes to explore the nuances of different beans, where and how they're grown and dried and sorted and roasted. And the attention to nuance gets passed along to the customers: Grumpy's clientele can choose from a coffee menu listing several brews, including the Cruz del Sur, "punchy and bright with pear and green apple," and the San José El Yalú, "complex and crisp with butterscotch, grape, chocolate and plum."

The aspirational comparison of coffee to wine is obvious, and the passionate young Clover virtuosos at Cafe Grumpy indeed remind me of wine enthusiasts; they're seriously invested in their work, nothing like the sullen soy-foamers at Starbucks or even at other independent coffee shops I frequent. On the cafe's blog, barista Ed describes his recent visit to coffee farms in Panama.

For now, Latourell admits that wine may be "50 years ahead of coffee" technologically. "We're just starting to scratch the surface of what can be done with coffee, how we understand it." But that's changing fast. The world of winemaking is wracked by a tension between the old, individualistic ways, in which each wine tastes distinctively of its origin, and the new methods that produce best-selling wines in a uniform "global" style divorced from regional characteristics. The story of coffee is the reverse—until recently, coffees were blended and branded to suit a homogenous popular taste, and only now is there a rising interest in the expression of varietal and regional differences.

Is owning a Clover worth $11,000? Not for the individual—don't be silly. But even a smattering of Clovers in the right hands promises to broaden the way we think about coffee. The very fact that an $11,000 coffee machine is receiving such excited media attention seems like a clear sign that we're headed toward a "third wave" of coffee, an age of terroir, aided by technology that can give different beans the different careful treatments they deserve. In the foretold era, popular dark roasts, which obscure those subtleties, are scorned, and enlightened customers gladly pay exorbitantly for rare brews.

Watching the booming trade at Cafe Grumpy, the change seems inevitable: In certain circles, at least, the generic over-the-counter stimulant Latourell dismissively calls "brown liquid that costs a buck" will give way to increasingly common $10 and $15 cups of recherché coffee. At that rate, a small Clover designed for the home—"of course there's talk of making one," says Latourell—could start to sound like a smart, money-saving purchase.

Paul Adams writes about food and drinks. He can be reached at adams@pote.com.