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[Photo: Liz Clayton]

Five years ago, Starbucks bought a little company in Seattle called the Coffee Equipment Company, known for making a five-figure priced single-cup coffee brewer (with a squeegee) named the Clover. As the Clover was slowly introduced in select Starbucks stores, the buyout caused a slow elimination of existing Clover machines from indie cafes nationwide that could no longer easily get parts (or hipster cachet). On the fifth anniversary of their purchase, however, Starbucks has big plans. Clover is back, and they're putting 500 more in Starbucks locations around the world, starting now. Teamed up with a renewed emphasis on their Reserve Coffee line, this marks a big step in Big Green's interest in showcasing microlot, by the cup coffees, and in continuing to persuade nations that individually crafted, even expensive, cups of coffee, are something everyone might like.

Why now? According to the company, the five-year waiting period is less about lack of interest than lack of infrastructure. "We needed to figure out a separate area for the theater of brewing on the Clover," said Andrew Linnemann, who bears the intimidating title of Vice-President, Global Coffee Quality at Starbucks.

"Over the last five years it took us a long time to figure out Clover and how it should work with our stores. What was the best store for a Clover? It had to be a high brewed-coffee store [as opposed to espresso-focused], and stores that had a customer affinity for a different cup of brewed coffee," said Linnemann. "We needed an area that was customer-centric, had a lower counter, a place where everyone can see it work with the grinder, and not every store had that much space for that to happen. Not even counting water, electricity—we coldn't flip that switch overnight."

And now that the switch is flipped, what can customers expect from the hundreds of new locations set to feature the Clover? Will the hoopla that met its introduction in independent cafes in the late 2000s be matched by a mass-market embrace?

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We'll see: Starbucks is tying the brewer's renaissance to an increased push in their Reserve Coffees, like the Panama Geisha Auromar, released last week at $50 for 8 ounces, a coffee from the elusive Geisha variety that's been prized among the finest coffees in the world. Alongside limited-edition, very-small-lot coffees such as this, Starbucks hopes to use the Clover brew stations as stages on which to show off these rarer (and theoretically more nuanced and unique, though to this palate the roast is still incredibly dark to the point of obscuring much subtlety of flavor and terroir), more special beans.

But will all Starbucks baristas—or as the corporation prefers to call them, "store partners"—need to be trained on how to dial in the specifics of each rotating reserve brew on the Clover? Thanks to some of the original Clover technology, they won't have to.

CloverNet, a built-in way to program any Clover machine over the internet, allows each store to stay connected to a central source of information at Starbucks and receive brewing parameters for each featured coffee, directly from those who've decided the best recipe at HQ—the only major change Starbucks made to this technology is to accommodate their "Venti" size. "The network aspect will become more and more powerful in terms of making a consistent experience in our stores, and in terms of letting the baristas brew with best practices," said Randy Hulett, a director with Starbucks' Hardware Design Studio, who came aboard from Coffee Equipment Company with the purchase of Clover. "As the coffee is delivered to the door of the shop, the machine is learning how to brew it to the same standards developed here," said Hulett from his Seattle office.

And of course, for a company operating on the scale of Starbucks, getting information on how the brewer is performing—and what is ordered—is built into CloverNet as well. Headquarters can download reports on what sizes of which drinks were made and at what temperatures, to ensure quality control.

And for those Starbucks stores deemed to be receptive to brewed coffee, but without the real estate for a Clover?

"We do have a few stores that don't have the Clover where we do an elevated pourover experience, through the porcelain dripper," admitted Linnemann.

"My default is pourover, I really like coffee brewed that way, I really like a bit more of the clarity in the cup. But as long as your coffee's ground, it's fresh, it's dosed properly and it's prepared properly, coffee does not necessarily require a $5000 or $10,000 machine. You can replicate that experience at home with minimal investment."

But even after all these years, there's no replicating the theater of coffee prepared by Clover. No home device will see your coffee saturated by a shiny faucet, then rise up and down on a piston, which you have to clean off with an elegant flourish of your handy squeegee. No. You need to watch someone do that to fully taste the Clover experience. And it's still a helluva way to present a coffee.

"We're giving our customers a more experiential process," says Hulett, who was on the original Clover design team. "In how their coffee is brewed, and watching their beverage come to life."

About the author: Liz Clayton drinks, photographs and writes about coffee and tea all over the world, though she pretends to live in Brooklyn, New York. She is the creator of Nice Coffee Time, a book of photographs of the best coffee in the world, published by Presspop.

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