My recent search for new and improved coffee experiences took me to River Maiden Coffee in Vancouver, Washington. River Maiden is a coffee shop that plays up Vancouver’s “second city” status with its “Vantucky Strikes Back” logo on cups and shirts. It also has “The Couve Abides” cups and shirts that fans of The Big Lebowski would appreciate.
In addition to having an appreciation of pop culture, River Maiden is also one of very few independent (i.e., non-Starbucks) coffee shops in the world to have the Clover brewing machine.
The Clover is a machine that combines the brewing principles of a French press and a vacuum pot. It was designed by a couple of coffee-loving Stanford engineers, who proceeded to build a company around it. Starbucks executives were so impressed by the machine that they decided to buy the whole company. These days, if you want to try some Clover coffee, you either have to go to Starbucks or find one of the indies that had one before Starbucks bought them all. [An interesting side note: When the Clovers first came out, Stumptown had several, but then sold them all when managers heard Starbucks had bought Clover. The rumor was that Stumptown did not want to have any dealings with “corporate” Starbucks.]
I tried a Clover coffee at Starbucks once—it was fine—but I wanted to try it with some better coffee. River Maiden sells Stumptown coffees, so I expected it to be good.
When I arrived, I asked the barista, Joelle, which of the coffees I could get on the Clover. She told me that any of the ten or so coffees they had sitting on the counter were available. Her enthusiasm was obvious as she described several of the coffees, going into some detail about the regions where they were grown. Trusting the expert, I let her pick one. She chose the Costa Rica Helsar Reserva.
When the Clover brews coffee, it looks like a science experiment—a very high-tech science experiment (I tried to get a video of the process, but technical difficulties came up—I hit the wrong button on the camera and was not recording when I thought I was. If you really want to watch one in action, go here). The barista weighs the coffee and grinds it, dumping the grounds into the cylindrical brewing chamber that sits in the center of the rectangular, box-like housing of the machine. A nozzle above the chamber sprays hot water over the grounds, and the barista agitates the mixture with a wire whisk.
The brew time is short, only about 30 seconds. When the coffee is done, the filter at the bottom of the chamber slowly rises from the bottom, creating a vacuum that sucks the coffee through the filter and into the cup. When the filter reaches the top of the box, a thick layer of grounds remains. It looks like the flattened top of a chocolate cupcake, which the barista scrapes them off with a special squeegee.
The Helsar had some rich chocolaty notes at the beginning and as it cooled, it developed some sweeter flavors. I thought I tasted a hint of cherries and some minerals toward the end, but the flavors were very subtle. The coffee was not as “clean” as I expected. There was a fair amount of sediment at the bottom, similar to what you might get with a French press.
I bring the sediment up because a barista once told me that the Clover brews the “cleanest cup you’ll ever taste.” It wasn’t nearly as clean as a Chemex, or even a regular drip coffee. For me, that’s not a problem, but if you cannot stand any sediment, you probably won’t be a huge fan of the Clover.
After reaching the bottom of the first cup, I went back for a second. It’s not every day I make it up to Vancouver, after all. This time, the other barista, Mitchell, offered to let me try the Kenya Gatomboya that Stumptown had just released. I accepted, but I had to get it to go.
I thanked them for the coffee and hit the road. The drivers behind me probably noticed a few weaves as I closed my eyes to concentrate on the flavors. The Kenya was full of body and had a very cherry-flavored beginning. As it cooled, a hint of butterscotch showed up to go with the cherry. It was a very unique coffee.
While I would not call it a place for coffee purists (more than once, I overheard customers ordering “12oz., double white chocolate mochas with whip”), River Maiden is definitely a place for coffee enthusiasts. The baristas at River Maiden know what they are doing with the coffee and are not elitist about it. You can order a “raspberry, soy, white chocolate mocha” or you can have a cup of Stumptown’s finest coffee freshly-brewed on the Clover and still feel welcomed. Vantuckians from The Couve are very welcoming. And they serve good coffee.
Address: 602 N Devine Road, Vancouver, WA 98661 (map)
Hours: Monday-Friday 6:30am-6:30pm
Free Wi-Fi? Yes
What do you recommend? Stumptown coffee on the Clover