Introduction

Here at CoffeeRatings.com, we prefer to be experimentalists rather than theorists. This means we may have opinions, but we try to back them up with first-hand experience — even if it means consuming coffee, Fear Factor-style, that we would much rather avoid.

Last year when Starbucks announced they were purchasing The Coffee Equipment Company, makers of the Clover brewer, we scratched our heads in bewilderment:

Starbucks coffee in a Clover machine? Who buys a $30,000 sound system to listen to AM talk radio?”

This past October, Starbucks finally started offering “Clover crafted Small Batch Coffee” at a few select locations. After giving them a few months to work out the kinks, this week we finally put our expectations to the test at the 295 California St. Starbucks — one of four San Francisco Starbucks featuring the Clover.

Having previously sampled Clover-brewed coffee at the likes of Ritual Coffee Roasters and Coffee Bar, we already had an idea of what to expect. So how would Starbucks’ coffee measure up with the same process and equipment?

Starbucks with the Clover...no, wait, it's the one across the street Starbucks' Small Batch Coffee, or Clover brewed, menu

Materials and Methods

We started by selecting their Papua New Guinea (aka “PNG”) Kainantu. We were first turned on to some of the excellent PNG coffees by Terry Patano, a longtime CoffeeRatings.com reader and co-owner of DOMA Coffee Roasting Company (Cour d’Alene, ID). And at $3.45 for a “tall”, compared to the others at $2.75 (Colombia Manzanares, Ethiopia Sun-Dried Sidamo, Bali Batur Highlands — and Guatemala Casi Cielo at $2.45), we figured we’d opt for something interesting enough to avoid low-balling our test.

Starbucks’ Clover set-up includes a nice Mahlkönig grinder, an array of Bodum Yohki storage jars containing their small batch coffees, and, bizarrely, a strange fetish for paper cups. If the Mahlkönig was promising, the stacks of paper cups was unsettling. After ordering, the barista immediately produced a paper cup — until we stopped her by asking that it be “for here”. Given the target experience of the entire Clover setup, this is like having to ask for the ketchup on the side when ordering your chateaubriand.

Following that incident, our wait for our coffee was at least five minutes. Part of this delay, we could tell, was because they don’t seem to get many Clover orders. This spelled trouble for the freshness of their coffee, as a low turnover rate will deaden even the freshest roasts.

Starbucks' Clover setup, with paper cups all around(?!?) Big cup o' Clover brewed Starbucks Small Batch Coffee: size 'tall'

Results

Now whether the original roasts weren’t very fresh, or whether they were left to grow stale after a couple of weeks, or whether the quality of the coffees themselves weren’t all that great — we can’t be entirely sure. But we suspect all three faults were at work when we say that the flavor of the Clover-brewed coffee here fared no better than meeting our low expectations: AM talk radio. (Not to mention that Starbucks likely burned some of the evidence of flavor out of their coffee using their typical roasting style.)

The beans did not carry distinctive flavors that we commonly found with other Clover brewings, and the finish even lacked some of the characteristic “clean” that the Clover can produce with high quality and properly handled bean stocks. In fact, we’d go so far as to say the coffee was no more flavorful than retail coffee beans we’d brew in our French press at home. Philz Coffee, by comparison, is far more flavorful, interesting, and even cheaper.

Conclusions

In these hyper-conscious economic times, spending $3.45 for filter coffee seems even more outlandish than the $4 latte (aka “Fourbucks”) — even if Starbucks charges less for Clover-brewed coffee than other high-end cafés. But the worst part isn’t that a $3.45 filter coffee seems as quaint as businesses that once slapped their logo on company Hummers for self-promotion. The biggest offense is that consumers are asked to pay double for coffee that ultimately tastes very pedestrian. Even if Starbucks’ high-end competitors charge a dollar more for their Clover-brewed coffee, it at least tastes like you’re getting something special for all the price and pomp.

Starbucks needs to rethink how they’re using the Clover in their stores — i.e., if they intend to keep using it at all. In the end, Starbucks’ purchase of The Coffee Equipment Company may prove to be an entirely defensive move — just as they did with the acquisition of Torrefazione Italia. If you can’t beat superior competition, buy them out and hide the evidence from customers that much better coffee ever existed.