There are about 32 Starbucks Reserve Bars, all in the U.S. and Canada. Each is like a regular Starbucks but with a bit more glam. Since the company expects 20 percent of its locations worldwide to join the Reserve in due time, it’s time for us to start familiarizing ourselves with the upscale ‘bucks brand.
The first thing you need to know is that the Reserve brand includes a handful of institutions. There are Roasteries, Stores, and Bars. Here’s a breakdown of each:
Most Reserve locations in the future will be Bars, so we’ll focus on those from here on out. I scouted the three Reserve Bars in Los Angeles. Here’s what I learned:
The Coffee…is better.
Reserves serve premium roasts and brew in innovative ways. You can order regular Starbucks coffee at a Reserve Bar, but doing so kinda defeats the purpose. Instead, request your coffee “on reserve.” It will cost you more, but the coffee will be better. Also, some who frequent Reserves say they sense more caffeine, but that might just be the elitism talking.
If you go “reserve,” you get your choice of a few roasts. Baristas will hand you some trading cards that describe the beans’ origins. Each brew has its own personality. On my trip, I was asked whether I preferred something “fruity” or “chocolatey.” I chose chocolatey, which led me to the Nicaragua.
There’s a brief excitement that comes with trying to taste the descriptions of your chosen brew. My Nicaragua was said to evoke caramel and lemon-lime—it was hard to prove but also hard to argue.
In Southern California, a grande reserve iced coffee with a dash (sorry) of soy (sorry!) and two pumps of hazelnut (SORRY!) rounds out to an even $5—a number so neat you might expect to see it on a chalkboard at the trendiest coffee spot in your neighborhood.
The Brewing Methods…are theatrical.
There are four primary brewing methods that you can request at a Reserve Bar.
If you simply say, “on reserve,” your brew will be made in the Clover machine. You might have already discovered the Clover at regular Starbucks—some use it. The “full-immersion brewer” creates a single cup. It’s a VIP pass; it’s a haircut reservation with a preferred stylist; it’s boutique. The Clover is programmed to fill to the brim, so if you request anything extra, like cream, the barista might give you a small cup with the spillover. It’s a bit like ordering a milkshake and getting the silver steel cup.
You can request pour-over instead of Clover-brewed if you have the time to burn. Pour-over yields a “cleaner” cup and costs the same.
The Chemex uses a triple-layer paper filter to produce one Venti-sized brew. The Chemex extracts more oil from the beans, which can dramatically alter taste. The Nicaragua brew, for example, tastes much nuttier in the Chemex than it does in the Clover. (Honestly, it did!) One massive cup is built in the Chemex brewer so a single cup could put you in the double digits. Baristas often recommend sharing a Chemex blend.
If you’re looking for a true Reserve Bar experience, opt for the Siphon (pronounced “sif-fen”) Experience. The vacuum-filtrated Siphon machine is said to produce a more “delicate” cup; the smoothness is definitely noticeable. If you chalk up the $10 for a siphon brew, you’ll be allowed seating in the Siphon-only section.
The Espresso…is more caffeinated.
Starbucks Reserve bars feature a single espresso on reserve. All reserve espressos are medium-bodied and hold more caffeine than traditional espressos.
The Pastries…are the same.
Sorry, my petite vanilla scones! Nothing special here.
The Food…is basically the same.
But if you order hot food, like the new Sous Vide Egg Bites with Bacon and Gruyere, it will be served with a more thoughtful presentation. It’s nice. The plating alleviates an always-awkward feeling of fishing for eggs in a bag.
The Atmosphere…is sleek.
Generally speaking, reserves are larger. They’re dressed in wood paneling and filled with low couches. The brand colors of black and gold hammer the message home—this is premium service, folks. This is what regular Starbucks must have been like in 1997.
The Hats…will leave you shook.
Baristas at Reserve Bars are required to wear hipster hats. The first time you encounter this novelty, you’ll stare in awe. My barista made clear that each barista gets to choose his/her own hat, which, depending on the hat, can be a relief or a point of concern.
The Cups…are aspirational.
If you order on reserve, you get a better cup. The iced version catches the envy of passers by like a souvenir cup at a concert. The black hot cup is a far departure from the white and green at plain old Starbucks, leaving people to ask you where the new “R” coffee shop is.
The Stuff…is more niche.
Reserve Bars push coffee culture, especially through their merch. I was pointed to an item called the Reserve HERE, a pop-up globe on which you can pin all the places you’ve tasted: Guatemala, Ethiopia, Nicaragua, etc. My barista said they’d sold many of these—which, again, was both a relief and a point of concern.
The Wacky Drinks…are wackier.
The Reserves debut a host of unique concoctions every day. You might catch The Melrose—a fruity cold brew topped with sugary cherries. There’s also a Rose Honey Latte, which is exactly as sweet and floral as it sounds.
Oh, and one more thing—you can also top most any drink with a hunk of vanilla ice cream, leading to a creamy affogato.
That’s about it. Be prepared for all the upscale temptations, Starbucks people! The Reserve is coming. Your Friday morning coffee may never be the same.
Header image by Ryan Hynes.