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Starbucks testing in Boston (like, really long)

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  • jkv Feb 20, 2008 11:18 AM
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I know that this is clearly a topic about a fairly well-known national chain, but since they're only running this test in Seattle and Boston, I'm going to try it out here. I invite moderators to move it to Chain-ville if they deem it to be appropriate.

I don't know how well reported it's been, but Starbucks, as part of their recent corporate shuffling, has started testing something called "fresh-pressed" coffee, which is made with the ever-controversial (and crazy expensive) Clover coffeemaker. When I discovered that one of the Harvard Square Starbuckses (in the Garage) had gotten themselves a Clover, I ran--I did not walk.

The short version is that it's, by far, the best Starbucks coffee I've ever had. The long version is that the cash register girl gave me the big sigh when I asked for the silly, "fresh-pressed" coffee ("we're short-staffed" etc.). They offer a choice of beans, including Kona, Aged Sumatra etc., that aren't in their general rotation. I got the Aged Sumatra because that's what I had at the Emeryville, CA, test Peet's and I knew it would be a dark roast. They grind the beans to order, and they come out of tiny little bags, ensuring relative freshness, I'd imagine.

The machine was as cool as advertised (find the video--it's entrancing), and the ensuing coffee had the look of French-pressed coffee, with a touch of brown foam around the rim. And the kicker was that it was silky-smooth, deep and dark, and entirely unrecognizable as a Starbucks product. Better still, it came with a postcard with a link to fill out a survey...and then receive a $5 Starbucks card. Price: $2.25 for a small, $2.50 for a medium (plus tax--this is Taxachusetts, after all). A normal large in the Bay State would be $2.05 after tax, so it's not really a HUGE difference, though the medium obviously gets closer to $3 than one might feel comfortable with.

And that's my story. I feel the burning need to go try the Kona, having never actually had that before. I honestly can't see corporate Starbucks going for this unless they're really serious about quality over quantity. It took a solid 5 minutes to make, and they said they've added staff just for the machine. An extra barista per shift? I just can't see the numbers adding up. Anyway, yum.

The main reason I want this to appear on the Boston board is that, despite a recent (and virtually endless) thread about Boston-area coffee, I find, along with a lot of people, I suspect, the coffee in Boston to really come up short. Yes, I've recently moved back here from the deliriously delicious coffee mayhem of San Francisco (dreaming of Blue Bottle), but still. Anyway, the testing is still going at the Harvard Square, Charles St., and (I think) one of the downtown locations.

Flame on!

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  1. Well on the same subject, I heard that in April Starbucks is going to recalibrate their machines to make their espresso drinks stronger. Since they overhauled all their stores with automatic espresso machines, people have been complaining about the weakness of their shot and a lot have been buying an extra shot to make up for the lack of taste in their lattes, mochas, etc.

    It will be interesting to see how that plays out.

    6 Replies
    1. re: joebelt

      Thank you both -- original post and first reply. This was extremely informative. Any word on any downtown locations for the Clover? I have not seen anything about this, but I take it that it's not literally a French press method (which I used to adore at the original Coffee Connection) -- Thanks Joebelt for explaining to me about the Starbucks espresso shots being weak -- I had to change how I order my lattes but now I know why (not that it makes me happy).

      1. re: Lucymax

        Exactly, I think a lot of complaints came in as it was explained to me because people had to pay $.55 extra for an additional shot to regain the taste they used to like.

        1. re: joebelt

          A-ha! I've always gotten my grande latte with a single shot (instead of the usual two) and recently that's turned up weak. Now I know why!

        2. re: Lucymax

          From (believe it or not) the Starbucks Gossip website, the locations are 75-101 Federal (Downtown) 1 Charles (Beacon Hill) and Harvard Square (The Garage).

          Here's a link to explain (and watch--seriously, do watch the video) the silly joy that is the Clover: http://www.chow.com/stories/10853

          1. re: jkv

            I assume 1 Charles is the one on the corner.

            1. re: jkv

              Thanks for this post!! I made the many block trek through the snowstorm to give the 75-101 Clover a try -- I was NOT disappointed!

              In fact, this cup of Aged Sumatra the very nice and helpful barista ground and brewed as I watched may very well be the BEST cup of brewed coffee I've ever purchased in the Boston area -- and these particular beans are dark roasted, but not burnt, full of flavor and subtlety.

              It's worth every penny of the $2.63 I paid for the grande (which is not a full cup, by the way, but left room for the milk I wanted anyway). This is going to be good exercise walking there regulary to try some of the other varietals. Thanks again!

        3. Hm. I think I'll have to try it. I love annoyed barista sighs :)

          1. As aside FYI - I had Clover-machine coffee this morning from Velouria Cafe in JP (Hyde Square, across from the Behan), if anyone would care to have a comparison between Starbucks' Clover-coffee and an independent.

            1. Yah, the term is called 'drawing a shot', Sbucks is moving with the trend for not only a great shot but, IMO the most important part of the shot, the 'crema', that's not cream but rather the light brown (tan) ending from drawing an expresso shot, it's the creamy tasting part of the coffee. No double lattee hoo.. chi.. coo.. fru fru stuff, just pure coffee. Oh, and none of those cheap black beans you find in the green cans at your local food mega mart.

              1. I hightailed it to Harvard Garage after reading your report; after seeing the Clover in action I HAD to try this coffee.

                Surprisingly (despite being relatively busy), the baristas were all smiles when I ordered a cup. They made recommendations on coffee/food pairings, thanked me repeatedly, and seemed genuinely excited about brewing with the Clover, saying "this is the best coffee we have here, it's so cool." I had the 100% Kona with a toffee almond bar (their recommendation) and they kept saying "good choice sir!". This was not a typical Starbucks experience :)

                The coffee was excellent. It still had some of the over-roasted quality that their beans tend to have, but the cup was sweet and nutty. I drank half of it black, then added cream; it was very good both ways.

                All in all, definitely worth a trip to a participating Starbucks, and try to go during off hours for the "concierge" experience!

                1 Reply
                1. re: Boston_Otter

                  I just had a similarly nice experience there and really enjoyed the Kona (no toffee bar though, but I can see how they would pair nicely). I am actually still enjoying it now that it is lukewarm.

                  If they keep the price like this, I may become something of a Starbucks guy [shudder]. The flavour is great, doesn't need cream and it definitely delivers. The very nice barista explained that the reason the machine is so expensive is that they're currently handmade. I wonder if it was the kinda saccharine happy that some of the baristas at Starbucks do or if they actually enjoy using the machine and delivering a wicked good product, but I was happy when I left.

                2. Just had my first cuppa Clover (we are in Boston...Clovah?), an Ethiopia Shakisso at 1 Charles. My two cents:

                  * It was excellent, the embodiment of what a dark roast coffee is supposed to be. Rich, elegant, and complex, with an extra earthiness from the slight sediment left over from the press process. Without a doubt the best cup of coffee I've ever had from Starbucks.

                  * Not unlike a good wine, it actually improved and grew more complex after sitting for a few minutes, a result likely achieved from a combination of having time to breathe and simply cooling to the optimal temperature. Virtually no unpleasant acidity as it cooled.

                  * As good as it was, I'm not 100% sold on the technology. I'd say that a significant portion of the excellence came simply from the care and attention that went into the brewing process. At least to my palette, the difference between this and a properly brewed pot of French press coffee was negligible. For my money, Starbucks could easily replicate much of the Clover experience for a fraction of the cost, simply by promoting in-store use of French presses.

                  4 Replies
                  1. re: finlero

                    I'd want to emphasize your point about the care that is, I think, FORCED by the machine to go into each cup (I'd use italics instead of caps but don't know how). A French press won't accomplish that (and it would take longer too). The great advantage of this modern marvel is that it forces (at least I think it does) that care and attention on the part of the barista for what is otherwise a humdrum product. I mean, if there isn't foam, whipped cream, soy milk and chocolate sauce on top, it's just a coffee there and, quite frankly, at most places. The timing on a French press has to be just right or you have a cup of bitters, and not the kind I like wake up to.

                    1. re: sailormouth

                      I absolutely agree about the care needed to make good coffee in a French press. Then again, on the other hand, the Clover clearly demands at least as much training to operate as a proper pot of French press would. Considering Starbucks' Clover test market consists of exactly six stores in two cities, surely they could have trained the same number of baristas to operate a French press properly.

                      As for timing, yes, one cup of Clover only takes 40 seconds versus the several minutes with a French press, but a larger French press can brew 4 - 6 cups of quality coffee in those several minutes, making the time trial something of a wash.

                      To be clear, I really liked my cuppa clovah, and I have every intention of going back for more. My point was just that in terms of cost/benefit, I think similar levels of excellence could be achieved (at least theoretically) without the $11,000 price tag for the hardware.

                      1. re: finlero

                        Oh I'm with you! I use my French press at home and would only consider one of these fancy doodahs if it got down to the very low hundreds. That said, I've walked away from the press for a little too long, and it's very easy to do even when making breakfast, let alone making half-caff whatevers, and wound with with a worthless cup of coffee. I'm "trained" on how to make my coffee but the press makes it so easy to screw up.

                        Plus, the clean up of a press can be annoying as is the occasional heavy amount of grounds that can sneak by when trying to top off that last cup.

                        In summary, I'm more than willing to let Starbucks spend eleven grand for a perfect cup of coffee. The price tag will have to come down if they start doing this in more stores and start mass producing the Clover, and when it starts approaching the hundred dollar mark, I may look to get one.

                        One of these babies would be perfect for a slick lawyer's office or something. I wonder if you can write-off the whole thing that way. . .

                    2. re: finlero

                      All Starbucks offer French Press coffee in thier stores for around $4-4.50 Im pretty sure its on thier menu board...you get the press prepared with a timer and press the plunger when it beeps. Great for two.

                      As for the Clover, Ive been in to the Beacon and Charles location (where I ordered the French Press), enough to try all the Clover lineup and have been impressed. I think you have to help the "Barista" a bit to make sure they are properly preparing your coffee. After watching videos and researching this machine a bit, the key is a perfectly formed "puck" stiff on the sides flat on top, the closer to this the better. The Etiopia has been my favorite, with the Arabia Sannani hit or miss (not sure if this was the preperation).

                      I have also been out to the Velouria Cafe in JP when I heard they had the Clover a few months ago. The cup I had there was good, but not as flavorful as my recent experiences, though I only tried it once and I dont remember the beans.

                    3. Thanks for the tip. Are you sure the term is "fresh-pressed" and not "French-pressed"? That's a standard brewing method.

                      I've moved here from the Bay Area too; the original Peet's on Vine St. in Berkeley was my regular coffee place.

                      Not to quibble, but the dark roast of the Emeryville Peet's aged Sumatra is no guarantee whatever that the dark Sumatra at a Boston Starbucks will be dark. You can roast any variety of coffee to any roast.

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: Kenji

                        Oh-so-certain that it's "Fresh-Pressed." The Clover machine is a whole other animal.

                        Of course you're right about the Peet's vs. Starbucks versions of the beans. I was sort of going on my sense that the Kona tends to receive a lighter roast than some other beans (possibly just made up in my head). As most will agree, the odds of anything at Starbucks being anything other than uber-dark roast are pretty low.

                        UPDATE: I went back to the H. Sq. 'bucks yesterday, to try the Kona etc. Total dud. Barista failed to actually stir the grounds while they floated around in the Clover. I could see little dry islands of grounds in the stream (hat tip to Kenny and Dolly), and the resulting joe was quite unfortunately thin, and a sad, brownish shadow of that original Aged Sumatra perfection. That kind of experience suddenly makes $2.50+ start seeming pretty outrageous and, worse, kind of leaves me heedlessly blaming the Kona. I'm getting right back on the horse today--and this time will chastise my head off if it doesn't go well. Shame on me for needing to catch a bus yesterday. Shame!

                        The bottom line is that it's nice to know that no matter how coffee is made, a Starbucks barista can always find a way to screw it up. "This is ooooouuuur country!"

                        1. re: jkv

                          That's a shame because just today I had the Clover-made Kona at Beacon hill and the barista stirred, squeegeed, the whole nine yards. And I was not disappointed. The flavor was not over-roasted. Both bold and smooth. For me, very worth the extra couple of coins.

                      2. The mods moved a coffeemaker subthread to here: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/492504

                        1. Is anyone else using a Clover machine? I'd like to try, but I'm working out in metrowest this week. Does anyone know if a shop near Concord is using one?

                          2 Replies
                          1. re: gini

                            If you are in Concord, go to Farfalle Italian Market, they pull the best espresso this side of Cambridge.

                            1. re: kelly001

                              Thanks for the recommendation, but I'm looking to try coffee from the Clover machine specifically, not an espresso.

                          2. Are there any coffee shops north of Boston that have the clover machine? I know the Starbucks in Harvard Square has it. How about coffee shops in the greater Boston area outside of Boston? I really want to try a cup of Kona coffee made in a clover machine.

                            3 Replies
                            1. re: buffet king

                              I just tried the Kona on the Clover in the downtown location. It was incredible. The barista seemed to know what he was doing and explained every step of the process. Definitely worth the $2.50 for a medium, excuse me grande. I am big Peet's fan but this takes Starbucks to another level if the Clover becomes permanent.

                              1. re: laulauman

                                Today, I took a walk to Charles Street (corner of Beacon) and tried the Kona too. It was a very nice cup of coffee. Very smooth, very clean taste and absolutely fresh tasting.

                                I use an Aeropress at home and when we travel and this reminds me of the coffee extract from the AeroPress when I add a bit of water to it- sort of a press Americano.

                                I wanted to watch the whole process but was still paying when the Barista began but I did see the stir, clean and I saw her grind my beans from the register. The young women were both excited about it.

                              2. re: buffet king

                                velouria in jamaica plain.