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At last, a brilliant brew

Move over, espresso. An $11,000 drip machine is in town, and it makes killer coffee.

March 14, 2007|Amy Scattergood | Times Staff Writer

IN the breve new world of coffeehouses, espresso has been getting all the love. Tattooed baristas pull perfect shots from loud machines the size of Fiats. Lattes come crowned with filigreed leaves drawn in foam; macchiati appear in dainty demitasses of Italian porcelain. The drip coffee drinker, however, is handed a paper cup and directed to a stoic thermos, exiled near the napkins and sugar packets.

But a seismic change is on the way in this highly caffeinated world. Drip coffee is getting a serious upgrade, thanks to a new machine called the Clover. A high-tech gadget that looks like a cross between a water cooler and a microwave (and it's the size of a small one), the Clover brews a single cup of coffee at a time, to order, through a process that allows the barista to adjust the brewing to fit the flavor profile of specific lots of coffee.

Coffee brewed in the Clover has the depth of flavor of a French-press brew with none of the sediment; it has a clarity and focus, even an elegance, that you just don't experience with other brewing methods.

And the price for a cup of such brilliant coffee? Two bucks. At least that's what it costs (for most brews) at the new downtown branch of Groundwork Coffee Co., which has the only Clover in operation so far in Los Angeles. Not bad, when you consider that the machine costs a cool $11,000.

But there are more on the way. A new coffee shop with plans to open in May in Silverlake will house two of them, and Groundwork has plans for two more. There are two in San Francisco (Ritual Coffee Roasters just installed them); ironically, Seattle has only one. There are a total of 68 Clovers in the U.S., many of them owned by coffee roasters.

Meanwhile, at the new downtown Groundwork last week, customer Ted Humphrey was excited to find the Clover -- he had heard about it, he said, and had made three trips trying to find the coffeehouse that had it. He waited as the barista, Shawna Whitlock, prepared his cup of Malacara from El Salvador.

She ground the beans in a burr grinder, poured the ground coffee into the top of the Clover, and pressed a button. About a minute later, the coffee poured into a waiting ceramic cup. Humphrey sipped -- and was impressed. "It's a really great cup," he said. "There's no bitterness, but it's not stripped down either, and it's got terrific finish."

Just back from a sourcing trip to Africa, where his purchases included 650 bags of raw Ethiopian beans, Groundwork President Ric Rhinehart said he sees the Clover as a way to showcase the specialty coffees -- single-origin beans, estate blends, Cup of Excellence award winners and micro-lots -- that he's sourced and roasted to exact specifications.

"It's a remarkable machine," he said, "the closest approximation to the cupping ritual." Cupping is the technique used by coffee experts to evaluate the flavor profile of a coffee, in which hot water is poured into small cups of freshly ground beans; the mixture is stirred, allowed to form a crust, which is then broken and the liquid below the surface slurped and spat out.

"For people who are drip coffee drinkers, the Clover can deliver the experience [of coffee] I have in my mind," said Rhinehart, who has two more Clovers on order, one for his shop in Hollywood, the other for his flagship store in Venice.

But Groundwork won't have the market cornered for long. Intelligentsia Coffee, which is soon to open its first retail store outside of Chicago in Silverlake, will have two Clovers at the new shop at Sunset Junction when the doors open in May.

Doug Zell, Intelligentsia's founder and owner, in town recently checking on his new local roasting facility, said that not only did he have two Clovers ready for the new store, but that he wants the brewed coffee to be "all Clover." No thermoses of coffee in sight -- or on site. All the brewed coffee the Intelligentsia store will offer -- organic Nicaraguan micro-lots, direct trade beans from Colombia -- will be made to order on one of the two machines.

Zell admitted this won't be easy. Brewing coffee on a cup-by-cup basis takes time and attention, even on the Clover. The beans must be "dosed" (measured), ground individually to order, stirred once the water goes in -- and there's cleanup between cups.

That leaves time for some conversation between the barista and the customer, which is one of the selling points of the Clover. The barista's job will be to spark interest in the beans, offering an estate blend, an Ethiopian Yergecheffe just bought at auction, or a single-origin bean from a Fair Trade farm in Venezuela.

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