On the Menu: Starbucks agreement may affect other coffee brewers
21st Street Coffee and Tea co-owners Luke Shaffer, left, and Dominic Demangone stand behind the counter of their Strip District store. Alexis Shaffer, not pictured, is also a co-owner. A second store is in the Frick Building, Downtown.
Luke Shaffer makes a cup of Kenyan coffee with the Clover, considered by many to be the best way to brew coffee.
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When Starbucks announced at its March 19 shareholders meeting that it had entered into an agreement to buy the Seattle-based Coffee Equipment Co., the news spread quickly. The blogosphere weighed in, discussing Starbucks' intentions and the possible effects on the market.
For Luke and Alexis Shaffer, however, the news was much more personal. The couple own 21st Street Coffee, which has locations in the Strip District and in the Frick Building lobby, Downtown. Their Strip District store is one of a fairly small group of cafes that have a Clover, a $10,000 single-cup, commercial-grade coffee brewer created by the Coffee Equipment Co.
Many believe the Clover makes the best possible cup of coffee, not just because each cup is brewed fresh, but also because the machine excels at bringing out the unique flavors in different varieties of beans. There are currently about 250 Clovers in cafes around the world, about half in North America.
The Shaffers installed the Clover in July 2007. Now they, along with other Clover owners and all of the people who buy their coffee, are left wondering what will happen next. While the Coffee Equipment Co. has assured businesses that it will continue to provide service and parts for the machines that it has sold, no decision has yet been reached about whether Clovers will continue to be available to independent purchasers. It is also unclear effect the Starbucks name will have on the Clover brand.
The large-scale introduction of Clover machines is a significant shift for a company that has been moving toward ever-more automated espresso machines that promise to be user-friendly and extremely consistent but that produce middle-of-the road espresso.
When used properly, the Clover produces unique cups of coffee, because grind size, dose, water temperature and contact time are varied depending upon the specific "recipe" for individual varietals of beans.
Mr. Shaffer doesn't believe that the value of the Clover is diminished by its association with Starbucks, at least not for stores like his.
"For businesses that purchased it solely for the 'wow factor' ... certainly it will diminish what they're doing," he says. "There isn't anything like it, [but] it isn't a miracle machine where you can put Maxwell House into it and it's going to turn into something wonderful."
But Rich Westerfield, owner of Aldo, a cafe in Mt. Lebanon, abandoned a tentative plan to buy a Clover as soon as he heard the news. While he thinks the Clover is a wonderful machine, there are similar methods of making coffee that don't involve a $10,000 investment, especially one associated with Starbucks.
"There was a cachet that came with having it, [and] that cachet really isn't there any more," says Mr. Westerfield.
The purchase of the company suggests that Starbucks is picking on growing interest in brewed coffee, rather than just espresso. Although most Starbucks stores go through brewed coffee very quickly, once coffee has sat for even 30 minutes, there are noticeable changes in its taste and aroma.
But, most criticism of the quality of Starbucks coffee concerns the beans it uses rather than the brewing methods. Most Starbucks coffee is dark roast, and critics often describe it as overroasted, even burnt. Mr. Shaffer compares these types of beans to a well-done steak. While some people might like it that way, it's not the best choice if you want to experience the maximum amount of flavor from your steak or your coffee.
Both Aldo and 21st Street Coffee use Intelligentsia coffee beans. Intelligentsia is a direct-trade company, meaning beans are scored by a panel of tasters, and Intelligentsia pays a premium above the fair trade price based on the quality of the beans.
On average, 21st Street Coffee has about eight to 10 types of coffee that can be made on the Clover. All of its beans are roasted fresh each week at Intelligentsia, and employees grind them only seconds before making the coffee.
As Starbucks grew to behemoth proportions, many people believed it was driving independent coffee stores out of business. But in 2002 the Wall Street Journal reported that, contrary to popular opinion, Starbucks' growth wasn't hurting independent cafes and might even be helping them because the chain raised people's awareness about quality coffee.
Mr. Shaffer hopes that a Starbucks Clover might play a similar role.
"If Starbucks employs it well, it might continue to educate the customer. It will depend on what they do. If they continue to really, really overroast the coffee and put that into the machine, it's not going to highlight the subtleties that we look for."
First Published April 6, 2008 12:00 am