arbitrage

March 21, 2008 – 1:27 am

“why don’t you blog about the clover?” they said. “everybody’s doing it!”

this blog has been mostly surprised — and mostly in agreement — with the various coffee thinkers we’ve encountered in recent weeks who, in the end, find the ballyhooed clover single-cup brewer overrated as a taste machine. it’s a great device, the thinking goes, but not $11,000 great. it can make an excellent cup of coffee, but not consistently mind-blowing enough to convert the average, brick-tongued consumer and justify its price. (tonx argues that it’s not that expensive, relatively, but then a comparably priced espresso machine does create a radically different coffee experience that attracts even typically non-drinkers.)

now comes slate’s paul adams to make a different case for the luxury beverage box:

“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. And the attention to nuance gets passed along to the customers … “

which makes clover’s primary value NOT flavor. taste, it would appear, isn’t everything.

even some triple-waveist forum-haunters have been saying essentially this for a long time … that taste alone may not revolutionize a culture that also prizes — fetishizes? — speed, convenience, image, consumerism for its own sake, etc. you can see where this leads. the strategy becomes not just creating a taste experience but creating a snobbery for taste. it’s too hard building a movement based only on quality — there has to be a quality club, with a platinum membership card and accompanying social status!

this is taste gone corporate. individual coffee evangelists may well be able to convert urban boroughs one drink at a time. to build a mass movement, though, there has to be some irresistable cachet for the image-mongers. you have to buy their loyalty with the grubbier things that humans want — affirmation, attention, allure.

or so the wisdom goes. and that’s how we got starbucks, which discovered that good coffee and communal “third places” HAD to be married to lower common denominators for the brand to balloon. it’s leveraged taste. and that’s how starbucks bought clover, which came with irresistible cachet and even came “to overshadow the beans that go into it.”

if adams is right about this — that clover is an attention-generating machine more than a taste-generating machine — then the deal makes perfect sense.

p.s. but wait … isn’t “more attention to coffee” good? of course! — if the increased attention makes better coffee and better coffee people. is it a remotely safe bet that’ll happen at starbucks?

what we strongly suspect of even some third-wave notables is that the humanitarian, seed-to-cup approach is being leveraged more because it’s cool than because it’s the right thing to do. are the two motives mutually exclusive? nope. but what’s the pudding like?

ah, so it does come back to taste. taste, we say, that changes people.

UPDATE: in fairness, some of the emerging clover cynicism from the gurus may be partly the fault of the gurus at the controls. adams again:

Latourell enumerates six variables that contribute to the taste of brewed coffee—choice of bean, grind, “dose” of coffee, brewing time, temperature, and amount of water. The first three, for better or worse, are in the hands of the barista (“Call me when you get a better grinder!” Latourell half-teases the Grumpy staff)—but the Clover can precisely regulate the last three.

UPDATE UPDATE: as usual, give starbucks’ howie some points for bluntness:

“We somehow evolved from a culture of entrepreneurship, creativity and innovation to a culture of, in a way, mediocrity and bureaucracy,” Mr. Schultz said.

somehow? we think we have an idea how! but don’t listen to this blog. we can’t even keep our grinder burrs sharp.