By OC Weekly Staff
By Edwin Goei
By Edwin Goei
By Edwin Goei
By Edwin Goei
By Edwin Goei
By Kiera Wright-Ruiz
By Cleo Tobbi
"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."
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?'"