You Can’t Afford This Coffee Maker

The high-tech Clover, and two affordable alternatives

An $11,000 coffee maker—and a drip brewer at that—sounds like Exhibit A in a congressional hearing on criminally inflated military spending.It’s the Clover, a commercial machine that has gained a cult following for the heavenly coffee it produces. It precisely makes one cup of coffee at a time, letting you select brewing time and temperature to coax the best flavor out of the particular bean you’re using. The barista pours ground coffee onto an extremely fine filter atop a piston that descends into the machine. After the coffee steeps, the piston rises, creating a vacuum that pulls water through the grounds. The finished coffee flows through a spout into a waiting cup. Despite its price tag, a Clover can increase café owners’ profits by allowing them to charge more per cup according to the bean.

To date, only a smattering of roasters and cafés have the machine. I tracked one down at Intelligentsia’s Millennium Park location, near my home in Chicago, to see if it was really worth it. Intelligentsia charges anywhere from a few bucks to $22 per 12-ounce cup of Clover-brewed java.

The Clover 1s

How the Clover works

  • 1. Hot water from the Clover’s boiler is added to the grounds.
  • 2. After steeping, the piston is forced upward, creating a vacuum beneath it.
  • 3. The vacuum draws the brewed coffee down through the screen and the valves of the piston, straining out the grounds.
  • 4. The drain valve opens and the piston moves down, pushing the fresh coffee out into an awaiting cup.
  • 5. The piston moves to the top of the brewing cylinder, where the spent grounds can be easily wiped off into the nearby receptacle.
The sleek, 110-pound apparatus looked like an unassuming espresso maker. Although it is fully automated, it still requires some moves, which in-store trainer Chris Kornman showed me.

The best coffee maker

After weighing and grinding the beans—the coveted Hacienda La Esmeralda Geisha from Panama—I adjusted the Clover’s settings for cup size, time, and temperature. Intelligentsia’s quality-control team at its central roasting works in the city determines the settings for its top five beans every week. A cheat sheet is taped to the side of the Clover to aid baristas. After I poured the ground coffee onto the filter screen just below the attached hot-water spigot and pressed the start button, the pistoned screen descended into the brewing chamber and hot water flowed in. I gently agitated the mixture with a flat silicone whisk.

In 42 seconds, the filter screen rose up, bringing with it a patty of coffee grounds, which I squeegeed into the waste slot, leaving an amateur’s sloppy trail I had to wipe down.

The finished coffee streamed out automatically from a spout underneath the control panel. Even before my initial sip, the deep chocolate color and rich aroma drew me close. I suddenly remembered my first whiff of ground coffee as a kid. My introduction to Clover-made coffee was exactly what I’d wished for from that childhood scent. It had full body, remarkable clarity, and bright acidity. I thought, “This has ruined me for all other coffee.”

You probably can’t afford a Clover, nor could you fit one in your kitchen. Not all is lost, though, if you don’t live near one of the few cafés that use a Clover. Baristas I talked to recommended that home brewers buy one of the coffee makers on the next page.

Illustrations by Bryan Christie Design

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