My wife and I recently had a short getaway visiting my parents in their unit at Currimundi, up on the Sunshine Coast. We’d spent the morning relaxing and enjoying the view over Currimundi Lake, when the dire need for real coffee hit hard. We’d managed to keep down an Aldi pod machine coffee and then hit the road for a short trip north to Noosaville. Cracking out the Beanhunter iPhone App we quickly established Clandestino as our go-to place for a decent brew. It wasn’t just decent though, we were genuinely blown away!
Hidden away at the back of a gourmet food market store in an unassuming industrial estate out the back of Noosaville, Clandestino left us both stunned for the first couple of minutes as we took everything in. From the aeroplane hanging from the ceiling, to the fancy machines and coffee beans galore, to all the various coffee knick-knacks and apparatus that was on display for sale … this place puts most Brisbane roasteries to shame in terms of scope and style.
We enjoyed sampling the usual fare: Renée had her piccolo, I had my long macchiato, mum had a cappuccino and dad a long black. All of which well met—and exceeded—our expectations for great coffee … however there was something very rare up on the coffee menu board that got me just a little bit excited: a ‘Clover’ coffee.
I’d heard about the Clover from the other Bean Brewders from time-to-time, but I didn’t have much idea what it actually was. All I knew was that it was something pretty special and something that was very hard to find in Australia, let alone greater Brisbane.
The Clover was originally designed by The Coffee Equipment Company—headed up by company founder Zander Nosler—with the very first prototype developed in back in 2005. Apparently Zander was developing a commercial coffee maker for, ironically, Starbucks in 2001 when he decided that pretty well all filter-style brewing machines were intrinsically nasty and that there needed to be a better solution.
So the Clover. An interesting and innovative design that also adds a bit of theatre back into brewing filtered coffees. From the outside, it looks much like a typical fully automatic home espresso machine, except that it has a funny looking chrome facet stuck on the top. Once the process begins though, you very quickly realise this is no espresso machine.
Ryan from Clandestino kindly let us watch and photograph the whole process, which started with a meticulous round of weighing, grinding, and re-weighing some Guji Berta OCR coffee beans from Southern Ethiopia (roasted on-site). And when I say meticulous: he literally grabbed about three of four extra coffee beans and ground them to make sure the weight of coffee was exactly right down to the gram.
Then he fired up the Clover using the computer control panel on the front of the machine, and the Clover did some kind of initial rinse and preheat. Then it was ready to begin the brew. First the stainless steel filter disc in the middle of the top of the Clover lowered itself to reveal a cylindrical brewing chamber—from what I understand this is driven by an electronic piston. Then once at the correct depth, the faucet-type component that is positioned directly above the cylindrical chamber began pouring hot water into the chamber.
Once that had filled, Ryan then tipped the ground Guji beans into the chamber and used a small paddle to agitate the mixture. Then it was hands off as the machine waited for just the right amount of brewing time. Once ready, the machine automatically raises the disc (which is made of a perforated mesh screen that keeps the coffee grounds from escaping) that creates a vacuum as it rises—almost like an AeroPress in reverse—sucking the brewed coffee through, which then literally gushes out of the spout below and into a glass serving vessel.
The final thing for the barista to do is once the disc returns flush with the top of the machine (with the spent coffee grounds still sitting on top of it) is use a special squeegee type apparatus to scrape the coffee grounds into the built-in waste bin towards the front of the machine. It’s such a different system to anything I’ve seen before, yet it all works quite smoothly and methodically.
Ryan then served us the coffee in a glass vessel with two cups … and I don’t think I’ve ever had a bigger build-up to trying a coffee before, except perhaps after watching Luke from LTD Espresso working his magic with a Syphon Filter! And we were not disappointed!
I’ve had quite a lot of different filter coffees in my time, but this one was simply devine: delicate, soft, smooth, silky, amazing clarity of flavour, no heaviness whatsoever … it really was the best filter I tried thus far.
While we were sipping (and enjoying the change in flavours as the coffee cooled), Ryan explained a bit more about the brewing method, and where it sat in the grand scheme of filtered coffees. He opened a book that they had for sale in the shop called ‘Everything but Espresso’ by Scott Rao. In there was a diagram showing the spectrum of brewing methods from ‘least flavour clarity and most body’ to ‘most flavour clarity and least body’. Brewing styles including Turkish and French Press sat up the ‘heavy’ end, while the Clover sat at the very opposite end, beyond even Chemex in terms of flavour clarity! Based on what I was tasting, the diagram looked pretty correct to me!
It wasn’t long into the tasting that I knew it was time to address the elephant in the room: if these Clover machines are so amazing, then why the hell doesn’t every boutique coffee roaster and brew bar in Australia have one? Well Ryan had a good explanation for this. Apart from the fact that mainstream coffee drinkers prefer milk-based espresso drinks like lattes and cappuccinos (so the demand and profitability isn’t as large), but these machines are high maintenance and poorly designed from a servicing point-of-view.
Some of the issues he mentioned included a ridiculously complicated and awkwardly laid out network of parts, pipes and electronics inside the Clover machines—making opening and servicing them somewhat of a nightmare. Not only do you need to be highly specialised in your training to service one, but just the sheer amount of time it takes to pull one apart and reassemble it means it’s expensive and spends a lot of time not making coffees (or money). The second major issue is spare parts. Since Starbucks bought the Coffee Equipment Company (who makes the Clover) in March 2008, spare parts are expensive and difficult to get a hold of. Add to this a series of significant engineering flaws such as threaded plastic joiners that screw directly onto metal pipes that get very, very hot … and you end up with parts that deteriorate and crack much sooner than they should.
The other significant part to the rarity of the Clover machine is the fact that after Starbucks bought the company that makes them, the plan was to make them exclusive to Starbucks retail stores. This meant that only the independent coffee shops that happened to get hold of one before the buyout would ever have the machines at all. And though Starbucks had/has grand plans to roll out the Clover machines across their global network of stores, it appears that this plan has largely been shelved due to the added cost and time it takes to brew a Clover coffee—plus the additional physical space they take up on the already crowded in-store counters.
So what does the future hold for the magical Clover machine? Well there’s talk of Starbucks looking at reintroducing the Clover concept into some of its larger flagship stores, but considering Australia’s general rejection of the Starbucks brand, I don’t see it happening here anytime soon. And even if it does, many have been quick to point out that Starbucks’ generally lower quality coffee beans and very dark roasts are pointless to put through a Clover machine anyway!
All I can hope for is that the few establishments around Australia that happen to have got their hands on a Clover prior to the buyout hang on to them and invest in keeping them running well—even if they’re not making much money with them. It’s a bit like the cable car network in San Francisco: it costs the city a stack of money every year to keep the system running (which they never recover), but they see it as something that’s more culturally and historically important than just being finically viable.
And the Clover is something every passionate coffee lover should try at least once in their lifetime!
We give 10 very unique beans.
Apart from Clandestino in Queensland, the only other places I have found so far that claim to have a working Clover machine are Proud Mary, Padre Coffee, League of Honest Coffee, and the Brunswick East Project—all in Melbourne. If anyone knows of any other working examples in the wild, please let us know in the comments below!