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Lucky Clover brews pots of coffee gold

"You'll smell the berries," said Steve Peck, manager of a Wayland Square coffee shop, inhaling the earthy smell of sun-dried Ethiopian coffee. He then displays the Sumatra bean, which he said has been aged for three to five years. The Ethiopia Sidamo is another favorite, because of its "kind of lemony flavor," he said.

Peck said he enjoys small-batch coffees like these because they give him "the ability to talk coffee with people."

But Peck doesn't work at some obscure artisanal coffee house. He works at Starbucks.
Starbucks may have popularized the concept of gourmet coffee — expanding from Seattle to countries as far as Oman and the Philippines — but most coffee purists these days turn up their noses at the multinational corporation's mass-market appeal.

Yet the Starbucks in Wayland Square houses a Clover machine, an advanced coffee brewer found in only 47 Starbucks locations nationwide, according to the company's Web site. This sleek, single-cup machine — with an $11,000 price tag — could arguably be deemed the most advanced brewer in the state of Rhode Island.

The Clover was designed by the Coffee Equipment Company, also based in Seattle, which originally sold the machine to independent coffee shops. But in March 2008, Starbucks bought the company. Cafes that previously owned a Clover still own one, but Starbucks no longer distributes the machines to stores other than its own.

Starbucks debuted the machine in four test markets nationwide — the Wayland Square branch was the only Rhode Island location included — and plans to install 250 more machines soon, Peck said.

The store boasts a metal plaque reading "Clover" outside one of its entrances to highlight its unique brewing capacity.

The Clover is a good fit for the Wayland Square Starbucks, which sells a lot of drip coffee. In comparison, at some other branches — such as the Thayer Street branch — lattes and specialty beverages are more popular, according to Peck.

When a customer orders a Clover coffee, the beans are ground on the spot, then poured into the cylindrical brew chamber at the top of the machine. Hot water fills the chamber, and the barista mixes the grounds and water with a metal beater. The grounds are lowered down slowly, then raised, then lowered again. The process aerates them more for the vacuum press, which pulls the water through a filter out of the grounds, Peck said. The coffee brews into a cup while the grounds remain in a sort of patty that Peck squeegees into a container.

"They make a really great fertilizer," he adds.

The whole process takes about two minutes, which can sometimes cause a bit of a delay, Peck said. If customers prefer cold drinks, the coffee can be brewed double-strength and poured on ice.

Clover coffee has changed some habits, Peck said. Some customers no longer drink their coffee with milk, he said, because they now prefer to taste straight coffee.

But not everyone is buying it. One possible deterrent is price — depending on the blend, a Clover coffee can cost over twice the price of a regular brew.

Eva Goodman, who tried a cup of Clover-brewed coffee on the recommendation of a friend, said she did taste a difference, finding the taste "clean and bold."

According to Peck, about three-quarters of his branch's Clover sales come from regular, die-hard fans.

One Clover fan drives to Wayland Square even though he works in a different part of Providence, Peck said. Another regular customer sometimes buys two cups of Clover coffee in the morning when she knows she won't have time to return later in the day, he added.

Peck said customers are also protective. If the machine is not working, "people can get very upset," he said.


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