All photos courtesy of Starbucks.
The espresso machine behind the counter of the Starbucks Reserve Roastery & Tasting Room in Seattle is a “Black Eagle” from Victoria Arduino, a sleek piece of equipment that all the cool kids want to test out. I don’t usually fixate on coffee gear — a number of professional machines make outstanding espresso — but I took note of this particular Black Eagle. Almost all of the world’s 22,088 (and counting) Starbucks locations are outfitted with what’s known as a “superautomatic,” a machine that doses, tamps, and prepares a shot of espresso with the press of a button. A superautomatic takes the guesswork out of espresso, and most of the magic. Somebody high up at the Reserve Roastery decided it was time to bring that magic back.
When the Reserve Roastery opened last December, there was rush to document the extravagances of the place, a former Packard showroom built during the golden age of the automobile that was transformed into a 15,000-square-foot micro-roastery and coffee shop at a cost estimated by the New York Times to be $20 million. It’s a coffee funhouse. Freshly roasted beans fly from the roaster to glass silos through pneumatic tubes while a sound system could power an after-hours dance club fills the theatrical room with music. It’s big, and busy, and friendly. You’ve never been to a coffee shop like this one, because there is no other coffee shop like this one.
For some, the narrative is that Starbucks simply copied what indie roasters are doing in an attempt to regain the coffee cred it gave up a couple of stock splits ago. I’m not sure that’s exactly right. Yes, this venture covers some of the same territory covered by Blue Bottle, Stumptown, and the other small but well-funded coffee companies that obsess over quality, but the Reserve Roastery is more than a cut-and-paste project with a generous budget. It serves as the Starbucks concept car, the place where the company tries out new ideas.
Some might be apparent only to coffee nerds like me, the ones who can spot a Black Eagle from across the room. Some are even more subtle. For instance, there is no menu board, no one place to stand and wait and place your order. You could go to one of the counters and tell the barista behind the bar what you want. Or you could go to any of the “partners” (Starbucks speak for employees) who roam the floor and ask for a coffee, which he or she will input into a wireless device; a few minutes later, another partner will bring your order to you on wood tray. When I visited recently, all the transactions were so seamless and friendly they could be a case study in retail for Harvard Business School. The toys and decor are fine and all, but getting rid of the line is the breakthrough we’ve all been waiting for.
Most of the innovations will be apparent to the casual visitor. The Reserve Roastery will roast about 40 different coffees this year, many of them rare. Chances are they won’t make it to your local Starbucks.
So, what do you order? The curious should consider going to the Coffee Experience Bar in the back of the building and ordering the flight, three 12-ounce coffees for $15. You can ask for coffees from different origins, and get a sense of the range of coffees that the Reserve Roastery is now sourcing. Or you can ask for a single kind of bean prepared three different ways, and let the barista walk you through the brewing gadgets they are all too happy to pull out.
The last time I went, I kept it simple. I sat down at small table, caught the attention of a partner, and ordered a shot of Kochere, which is named for a district in Ethiopia. (It’s no longer on the menu.) It was one of the finest shots I tasted in recent memory, an espresso with all the floral and delicate characteristics you find in the best Ethiopian coffees.
To be perfectly honest, I was surprised by how much I liked it. Usually, Starbucks coffees are not to my taste — I find them dark, ashy, flat. But this Kochere was dazzling, a coffee from Starbucks that didn’t taste like Starbucks coffee. I know that it will take a seismic shift for an espresso that elegant will make it to the menu at the Starbucks around the corner from where I work, never mind the one at the airport I stumble past on my way to a 7 a.m. flight, but a boy can dream.