Finding Coffee in Oxford

In October, I was in Oxford Missisippi for 4 days attending the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA), symposium. This was the third straight year I had attended. Last year I was staying in an Airbnb, so I schlepped a full coffee rig to make the morning coffee. The apartment where we stayed belonged to two twenty-something Ole Miss students, but that’s another story. They didn’t have much, but they had a stove so I could boil water—I brought everything else I needed in my suitcase: coffee beans, grinder, a cone filter, filters, a cone pour through, filters and a thermos for the coffee to drip into. It took up a lot of room in my suitcase—I couldn’t take nearly as many shoes as I wanted to.

This year, I was staying at a new hotel called The Graduate. It was on the square in downtown Oxford, so I assumed I could find a good place to get a morning cup. I tried all the local coffee shops, no luck. I should tell you that a coffee company from Birmingham, Alabama, Royal Cup, sets up a truck at the SFA symposium and makes good coffee – espresso drinks and pour over in a Chemex. So you can get a good cup, but you have to wait until about 9:30 or 10 o’clock to do so. As early as I get up, I needed an early cup. It’s fashionable to bash any big box national retailer, and I’ve certainly been guilty of doing just that. But after asking other friends who were at the symposium if they’d found a good cup in Oxford and receiving a thumbs down from all I asked, my friend Peter and I did the unmentionable—we headed to Starbucks.

Starbucks has been the brunt of so many jokes. They’re called Charbucks (since they so often burn the coffee by roasting it too darkly) and they’re responsible for the Latte devolution…how the frappuccino and pumpkin spice lattes and the like killed the connoisseurship and evolution of coffee culture in America. Before you stop reading and start cursing me, hear me out. Not all, but some Starbucks, have an brilliant piece of equipment called a Clover. Here’s a link:

It’s my understanding that the Clover was designed by two Stanford engineers hired by a coffee company from Seattle. The machine essentially has mechanized what happens in a French Press. I’m familiar with the Clover machine because I remember the food show where the inventors were displaying the Clover, and I even considered buying one for 3Cups. But they were wildly expensive and we were using a manual French Press method at the time which I thought was just as good. Here’s what happened: Starbucks liked the technology and bought the company, and so now, the only place where you can experience coffee made by the Clover is at Starbucks.

Here’s the way the Clover option works at Starbucks: Remember—not all Starbucks locations have a Clover. The locations that have a Clover machine are called “reserve stores.”

Here’s how it works:

They have a board behind the counter where you can pick, in the case of the Oxford location, six different origins. I selected the coffee from Guatemala. The coffee is weighed, ground, and put into the Clover machine, where the water, at perfect temperature, is mixed with the coffee grounds. The barista stirs the mix, and then, at just the right amount of infusion time, the machine separates the grounds from the liquid coffee.

The barista handed me the cup. I took a sip. And the verdict? Fantastic. And it was clear to me that it was oh so much better than the small, local shops in town.

I’ll bet Starbucks, given their infrastructure and buying team, in fact might buy special coffees for their Clover machine stores. I’ve since learned that they do. They ship seasonal small-lot origin coffees roasted in a special facility in Seattle to their reserve stores. I know they roast the coffees differently; the Guatemalan I had was a perfect medium roast, with not a hint of carbon flavor from roasting too dark.

Peter and I went back the next morning and I tried a different origin, an Ethiopian, and, it too was excellent. I started out both mornings with a ceramic mug, I had to get back to the symposium for the next lecture, so I took the rest of my coffee in a to-go cup.

I was embarrassed to carry a Starbucks cup into a crowd of food lovers because I knew they would immediately judge me and think I was a traitor. So I actually poured my coffee into a travel mug to destroy the evidence.

There are not many times when I’m stuck in a strange place and Starbucks is my best option.

I was recently in Charlotte and found a Starbucks with a Clover machine. I had told my brother Chuck about this experience in Mississippi, and he said he’d like to go and have a cup from the Clover. So, off we went, to fetch a Clover cup. At this particular Starbucks, they had the same features as the Starbucks in Oxford – a board behind the counter, which read ‘reserve coffees’ with the origins on the left and a short description on the right.

So if you have a Starbucks in your town, before you judge them too harshly, call and ask if they’re a reserve store or if they have a clover machine. But remember to bring your travel mug if you don’t want evidence that you’ve been visiting the mermaid.