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.

The Clover 1s
The Clover 1s

The New York Times used words like "cult object," "majestic," and "titillating"; the Economist called it "ingenious" and "sleek." The subject of these encomiums is, incongruously, a commercial coffee machine—the Clover 1s, an $11,000 device that brews regular coffee (not espresso) one cup at a time. Could the Clover represent that much of an advance in the state of the coffee art? I had to try it for myself.

I convinced the manufacturer, Coffee Equipment Company, to send me a demo model, but they didn't tell me, until the machine was already en route to my apartment, that it requires a fist-sized 30-amp commercial electric outlet. So that option didn't work out: The crated-up machine and a massive grinder sat tantalizingly unused in my building for a week, then went back. Fortunately, David Latourell, a company representative who flew from Seattle to meet with me, had pull at Cafe Grumpy, a Manhattan cafe that owns two of the machines. After hours, as the last customers finished their cups and left, the long-haired, fast-talking Seattleite and I wedged ourselves behind Grumpy's coffee bar, and I had my chance to play with a Clover at last.

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The Clover is so eyebrow-raisingly expensive because it's not mass-produced: Each device is built to order by a small Seattle company. It brews coffee like a French press, but it's more dramatic to watch and much more precise. Unlike lesser methods of making coffee, which are no more reliable than their users and can't be counted on to produce the same cup twice, the Clover is equipped with a "PID algorithm" for regulating temperature and "programmable workflow modes" to help micromanage the brewing process. Latourell enumerates six variables that contribute to the taste of brewed coffee—choice of bean, grind, "dose" of coffee, brewing time, temperature, and amount of water. The first three, for better or worse, are in the hands of the barista ("Call me when you get a better grinder!" Latourell half-teases the Grumpy staff)—but the Clover can precisely regulate the last three.

The faceplate of the Clover is reminiscent of a high-end stereo and, with a gleaming stainless-steel surface and blue LED readout, is clearly designed to embody a similar tweaky-geeky aesthetic. A big, black knob allows me to navigate the configuration options and dial in each cup's specifications: I choose 16 ounces of water at 203 degrees Fahrenheit for 44 seconds—relatively brief compared with the few minutes a French press takes.

When I press the "Brew" button, a circular platform sinks down from the top of the machine into a steamy cylindrical operating chamber. I'm sure I'm not the first Clover user to experience a quick flashback to a vivid childhood memory—watching, horrified, as Darth Vader lowers Han Solo into his carbonite freezer. I have just a couple of seconds to pour a measure of coffee into the chamber before the built-in spigot activates and spurts exactly 16 ounces of hot water onto the grounds. The coffee steeps for the programmed 44 seconds, and then, like a French press in reverse, the platform rises, pushing the grounds back up to the surface. As it ascends, a vacuum separates the liquid from the grounds, sucking the brewed coffee down through a micro-perforated filter and into the hidden depths of the machine. By the time the platform returns to its original position (flush with the machine's top), all that's left on it is a tightly compressed puck of wet grounds, which I squeegee into a waste bin. A second press of the master button dispenses the coffee from the front of the machine.

Stationed at the Clover, I spend two hours and a $50 pound of good beans trying to make the coffee sing, to achieve the cup of my dreams.

The first cup has a muddy, dark taste with too much roasted flavor, although the butterscotch richness of the beans comes through. For the second cup, I keep the brewing time and the ratio of water to coffee the same, but I dial the temperature up from 203 degrees to 206 degrees. Immediately there's a difference: This one is far closer to perfect—resonant with floral and citric aromas and round, up-front sweetness—but it lacks a certain substance. I start to pick up the rhapsodic coffee-geek argot, bantering about brightness, notes, extraction. Latourell prescribes a coarser grind for the next cup, explaining to the baristas hovering near us that "counterintuitively, broadening the grind profile adds body!"

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.

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.

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