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Starbucks acquires The Clover: Good news or bad news for the independents?

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Cup of coffee

In coffee circles, a lot of noise has been made recently about the Clover Brewing System -- a coffee machine which reportedly comes close to brewing the perfect cup of coffee. The machine costs $11,000 and achieves cup-by-cup perfection via computer chips, Internet connection, and programming capabilities for every part of the brew process including temperature, water amount, and brewing time.

In an article for Slate, Paul Adams tests out the Clover, and considers its effect on the coffee industry:

"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."

The Clover
The Clover Coffee Maker


Over the past two years, Clover has been much more of an anomaly than the norm. Approximately 200 of the individually-produced machines are scattered around the country, and they are found in small, independent coffee bars.

Until now.

Last week, Starbucks held its annual shareholder meeting. As a reaction to poor earnings and share price drops, CEO Howard Schultz announced a five-point plan to help revive the company. Part of the plan involves the acquisition of the Coffee Equipment Company, the company that makes the Clover Brewing System. Starbucks will have exclusive rights to the Clover and is planning to introduce the machine to 30 percent of its stores in 2008.

"I think it's very interesting," said James Freeman, owner of Blue Bottle Coffee. Freeman thinks that Starbucks is generally a good company that treats its workers well, and has a place in the coffee world. They've been "good for the specialty coffee industry" and are a good training ground for customers. Customers often start learning about coffee at Starbucks and then move on to smaller coffee houses to further explore the nuances of a great cup of coffee.

Freeman doesn't use a Clover at any of his coffee locations -- he's more a fan of a drip bar: a simple filter system in which the perfect temperature water is poured over coffee grounds into a waiting cup. "Clover is about dialing in the parameters. A drip bar is more about craft."

That said, Freeman believes that the Starbucks acquisition of Clover may be a good thing. Using the Clover, Starbucks is going to "educate millions of people and those people may end up going elsewhere."

And what about the fact that this acquisition will be excluding non-Starbucks shops from owning a Clover? Something new will come along, believes Freeman. And a lot of little cafes may start looking at the drip bar as an alternative.

So is the Starbucks acquisition of the Clover Brewing System a good thing for small independent coffee bars? Time will tell, but for the moment I'm going to assume that a rising tide of quality will float all boats.

Locally, you can try coffee brewed from a Clover at Ritual Coffee Roasters and at Coffee Bar.

To read more in the press:

NYT: At Last, a $20,000 Cup of Coffee
Seattle PI: Starbucks will 'fight to the death,' Schultz says
Slate: Could a coffee maker be worth $11,000?
Chow: You can't afford this coffee maker

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