Portola Coffee Lab's Jeff and Christa Duggan Are the Deans of Caffeine

With their Costa Mesa coffeeshop, plus a second location opening in Old Towne Orange, the Tustin couple are re-defining OC's coffee culture, one cup at a time

Portola Coffee Lab's Jeff and Christa Duggan Are the Deans of Caffeine
Photo: Austen Risolvato | Design: Dustin Ames

"Lactose is a really interesting sugar," says Truman Severson, his hands punctuating his words. His hair side-slicked as though he were Clark Gable, complementing an Eton College professor outfit of a tie, brown tweed vest and browline glasses. On a Saturday afternoon, he holds court at Theorem, a six-seat tasting bar inside Portola Coffee Lab in Costa Mesa. He has just poured from a steel kettle a stream of water heated to 203 degrees, in a steady, circular pattern over dry coffee grounds resting in a shiny, chrome dripper that resembles an alien spacecraft.

The liquid darkens to a deep mahogany and trickles into a beaker-like glass vessel filled with perfectly formed ice cubes. After glancing at the numbers on a digital scale, then at the stopwatch in his hand, Severson removes the dripper, grabs a metal stick and gives the contents a stir. Three guests lean in over Theorem's black countertop, their eyes fixated. One man asks about the effects of adding milk—and that's when Severson launches into his lactose lecture.

"It is technically what we consider a polysaccharide, which is a complex sugar, but it's made up of two very weakly bound monosaccharides. So in the heating process, when we're steaming milk, we actually break down that lactose, which is a fairly large molecule, into two much smaller molecules and consequently, without changing the core value, make the milk appear to be twice as sweet because the lactose molecule by itself is so large it actually has trouble interacting with your tongue."

Christa and Jeff Duggan
Austen Risolvato
Christa and Jeff Duggan
Truman Severson at Theorem: Dig the Clark Gable hair!
Austen Risolvato
Truman Severson at Theorem: Dig the Clark Gable hair!

Heads nod in approval.

Meanwhile, outside the translucent sliding doors, crowds of java fiends—men in shorts and flip-flops, young couples with baby strollers, ladies toting shopping bags—swarm the main coffee bar, a retro-futuristic, Bunsen and Beaker-meets-steampunk wonderworld anchoring the OC Mix, an artisanal-boutique marketplace that's part of the SOCO Collection off the 405 freeway. Working behind a lime-green-and-bamboo island counter, tattooed baristas in white lab coats mix, measure and pour under the glow of halogen heaters as multichamber siphon towers bubble beside them. There are lab contraptions that would make Breaking Bad's Walter White cower—density meters, moisture meters, refractometers, laser calorimeters and water-testing kits. Customers watch the production as they wait for their orders, some holding up their iPhones to capture the scene.

All for a cuppa joe.

Standing beside the coffee roaster, a smokeless, low-emissions beast of a machine called the Revelation, Jeff Duggan peers at a MacBook screen, watching thin red and green lines climb on a chart as the temperature inside the steel drum rises. The espresso beans he's roasting, grown at the Hunatu cooperative in Antigua, Guatemala, are known for producing an impossibly smooth drink with a thick crema (the almighty foam) and tasting notes of cocoa, hazelnut and ripe stone fruit. One sip can cause even the most casual coffee drinker's eyes to roll back in a moment of bliss.   

"Do you hear that popping?" Duggan says, scooping out a small sample of beans. A sweet, slightly chocolate-y scent fills the air. "We've just hit first crack."

He is the founder and owner of Portola Coffee Lab—or, as many like to call him, the company's chief mad scientist. There's nothing about him that screams Dr. Frankenstein or even Doc Brown, though. A 40-year-old father of three, he wears an untucked plaid shirt, geek glasses and a wide grin; his personality is friendly, approachable, anything but pretentious. (You can toss out those Portlandia comparisons now.) His vision of a third-wave coffee laboratory isn't just kitsch. A trained chemist, Duggan pushes his team to blend science, passion and soul-inspired artistry for one mission: to produce damn good coffee.

"We really felt customers would appreciate the natural flavors of coffee and wanted to create a coffee beverage that excited them," he says, his eyes widening. "We're getting them to understand that coffee has very unique nuances that they haven't experienced before."

Since Duggan and his wife, Christa, opened Portola two years ago, the craft-brew coffeehouse has changed the way folks in Orange County experience their morning jolt. There are no grandfatherly leather chairs, no shelves stacked with weathered books, no paintings by local artists. Gone are rows of Torani flavored syrups in pump containers and chalkboard menus listing hazelnut lattes and caramel macchiatos with mountains of whipped cream. Instead, the company starts with meticulously sourced beans and makes sure that through every step of the process—from storing to roasting to brewing to even pouring and drinking—the quality never falters, and the spectacle is put out for all to see.

This endless quest for improvement has taken Duggan across the world (just this year, he visited coffee farms in Kenya, Uganda, El Salvador, Costa Rica and Panama) and has spiraled into new ventures at a rapid pace (in January, he opened specialty tea shop Seventh Tea Bar; later this summer, Portola opens its second location in Old Towne Orange). It has also brought new standards for local coffeemakers—and himself.   

"Anyone can turn green beans brown," Duggan says. "But to be great takes a commitment. Coffee roasting can be frustrating. I wake up in cold sweats at night, worrying about consistency. 'Did I really roast that Monte Verde the best that I could?'"

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6 comments
rashoop
rashoop

Nice to see the popularity of a place like this, and kudos to the Duggans for making it happen. Further educating people about how good coffee CAN be is fantastic. I just want to let readers know that coffee is NOT science, although there are some important details to be aware of, and learn, in order to produce basic coffee easily on par with Portola at home. Won't get into those, but do know that you can do this at home (don't be intimidated by all the fancy gear at Portola). Spend $50-100 or so on basic gear, get some fresh-roasted coffee, and you're on your way to producing world-class manual-drip coffee (OK, you'll also need to read a bit about HOW to properly make coffee too). Espresso is a more challenging, and having a piece of kit like the Slayer is good, but not imperative (lots of people produce espresso on par with the Slayer at home on sub $1000 machines... which many would think is still a ridiculous amount to pay for an espresso machine).

Also, if the beginning of the article really is how it happened, I'd recommend that Truman listen to what people ask, and answer their questions (which I'm sure he typically does). The question was about adding (I assume cold) milk to a cup of "pour-over" coffee, to which he went off into a "lesson" about the affects of steaming/heating milk. While that was awfully "fascinating", and I'm sure some folks would be impressed, it didn't even come close to answering a simple, and legitimate question.

mpro
mpro

Wow, the coffee is great, that's what I want from a Coffee House.  I can't wait for the Orange shop to open, its a little closer to me

swag
swag

You lost me when you brought up the self-promotional marketing lies about the "Third Wave", a term which Trish Rothgeb coined to describe coffee consumption ... not coffee purveyors.

But then this bit: "an educational approach that was far beyond any other coffeehouse in existence." In existence? Portola Coffee Lab always struck me as a me-too knockoff of the Espresso Lab Microroasters in Cape Town, who well before them took the lab concept far further than they have to date.

ph232323
ph232323

"We want to really push the envelope and look at brewing science for no other reason than to produce the best cup of tea," he says. "It has nothing to do with customs, nothing to do with tradition. There's no mold for this. There's nothing like it anywhere. We're forging our own way."

Yeah, not pretentious at all. /sarcasm

CaliforniaEtonMum
CaliforniaEtonMum

Hmmm ... I doubt you'd find an Eton College professor -- called a Master or Beak -- in anything other than School Dress (black tails, black waistcoat, white bow tie) or Formal Change (dark suit and tie).  (Tweed is for weekends, if that.)  Check out "Eton Style" on YouTube or the Eton College website itself.  Cheers!

 
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