Friday, March 21, 2008

SBUX buys Clover, but whither Intelligentsia?

Posted By on 03.21.08 at 12:59 PM

Up until Wednesday local coffee heroes Intelligentsia had been the largest purchaser of the Clover, the $11,000 brewer with special settings that allows the properly trained barista to exploit the terroir of individual beans. That all changed when Starbucks announced it bought Seattle's Coffee Equipment Company, which invented the machine, and manufactured the 200 or so out on the market so far.

I must admit I didn't quite get the Clover at first. At home I brew at near toxic strength, so the lighter-bodied stuff that comes from it seemed insipid. But after a half dozen or so cups it really grew on me--the individual top flavors and nuances are really enhanced by the process (for more on the wonders of this machine see Louisa Chu's Chow report).

The folks at Intelligentsia have two Clovers in their LA store, one each in the Monadnock building, the Millennium Park store, and in their training facility, and they were planning to bring another into the Broadway store. Additionally they have numerous orders in the pipeline for their wholesale customers (other high-end coffee bars and restaurants). But now, with Starbucks in charge, the ability to order more and service the ones in existence is in doubt.

"It's all the discussion over here," Intelligentsia marketing director Marc Johnson told me. "Our internal message boards are on fire, baby." Johnson and sales director Paul Rekstad cautioned that they had very little information about what was going to happen, so that anything they told me was pure speculation. But, they figured, eventually the Clover would become exclusive to Starbucks stores. "It makes a lot of sense for them not to make this available to the broader market," said Johnson.

Still, he wore a brave face, pointing out that the Clover is just a machine, what matters most is the beans, and Intelligentsia sources the best darn beans on the planet.

Amen to to that. But I am kind of curious as to whether the Clover can improve Starbuck's burnt, overroasted mud.

UPDATE: The New York Times taste tests Starbucks in a Clover. Results are not encouraging. 

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