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

A scientific approach might seem a bit much for something you can make at home and doctor to personal tastes. But Duggan believes it's the only way to keep improving the cup—and Portola always will—to turn OC into an unlikely coffee mecca. "Our equipment has evolved. Our technique has evolved. That's what's going to make us relevant, strong; great is our willingness to adapt.

"If someone thinks their method is better, I'm like, 'Awesome, let's test it,'" he adds. "'Please prove me wrong.'"

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The Daily Grind
Austen Risolvato
The Daily Grind
Mad scientists at work
Austen Risolvato
Mad scientists at work

In the contemporary coffee scene, there are three distinct movements. The first wave is rooted in the post-World War II era, when every kitchen counter had a spot cleared for a container of Folgers or Maxwell House. The second wave is characterized by the influx of chains—Peet's in the 1960s through OC's own Diedrich all the way to Starbucks, the big green empire that got America buzzing on $5 mocha Frappuccinos and made us one of the most caffeine-addicted countries on Earth.     

While Starbucks is responsible for the proliferation of coffee culture, many of those in the industry detest the brews. Severson proclaims Starbucks coffee "technically, categorically awful."

To understand why, one must look at what coffee is. Coffee beans are not actually beans. They are the seeds from the fruit of a coffee plant, a living, breathing crop that can't sit idly on a shelf with an expiration date 10 months down the road. Starbucks primarily serves dark-roast coffee, which has a flavor relying more on the roasting process itself than the unique character of its origin plant. With more than 20,000 locations worldwide, it makes coffee this way because it has to—and to make the masses think coffee must universally taste like this.

"A cup of coffee from Starbucks in Milan in 1995 will taste very similar to a cup of coffee out of Starbucks in Idaho yesterday," explains Severson. He says it's akin to leaving a piece of broccoli and asparagus on a barbecue for 15 hours, and then trying to distinguish the two. "Nature tells us that doesn't make sense. You can take any coffee from any part of Planet Earth and mix it with any other coffee from any part of Planet Earth, and if you overroast them, they will always be the same. They'll be consistent. Granted, they'll be consistently bad, but they'll be consistent."

The third wave of coffee is made up of a growing group of independent roasters who focus on coffee as an artisanal, regional product à la wine, with their task solely to bring out rather than subdue its natural characteristics. Baristas make one cup at a time; drive-thrus don't exist. The movement began in Seattle, trickled down to Porland, then to San Francisco, then to Los Angeles and other metropolitan spots around the country. These roasters understand that from the moment a coffee fruit (usually called a coffee cherry or berry) is picked off a plant, it can never be anything more than what it is at that given moment. Nothing can make it better, goes the third-wave mantra—but there are an infinite number of ways to make it worse.

"To a very large degree, all of us in specialty coffee, our job is damage control," Severson says. "We, as an industry, are just trying to not screw up what nature has blessed us with."

Coffee geeks speak of trailblazing companies such as Stumptown, Intelligentsia, Ritual Roasters, La Colombe and Blue Bottle in the same reverential tones that sports fans speak of the 1992 Olympic men's basketball Dream Team. "We'd be in coffee heaven [visiting some of the trailblazers] and enjoying every moment of it," recalls Christa Duggan, sitting with her husband at a table at Seventh Tea Bar as swingy, big-band tunes pipe in overhead. "And then we'd come home [to Tustin], and good coffee was very few and far between."

Both developed a taste for coffee at an early age. Growing up in multiple cities throughout the Inland Empire, Jeff remembers stealing sips from his parents' cups, brewed on their Mr. Coffee drip machine and doused with cream and sugar. In high school, coffee served a more utilitarian purpose. "Everyone procrastinates, but I was ridiculous," he says between sips of Lucio Delgado, brewed in a siphon. "Often, I would start homework at midnight or 1 in the morning, and I would spend two hours on it, and then wake up at 6 to go to school. Coffee got me through this."

A math whiz from the start, Jeff studied chemistry at UC Riverside and went on to work as a systems administrator. "I like numbers and empirical data and things that I can really wrap my head around," he says. "I like repeatability. I don't like just happening to do something great, and then not knowing how I did that and not being able to do it again."

His love for coffee intensified; in the mid-1990s, while browsing the Internet for a way to buy fresh-roasted coffee beans by mail, he stumbled upon an ad for "green beans." "I thought it was odd that a vegetable would show up when I was looking for coffee," he says. "I clicked on it, and it introduced this whole idea of sourcing raw coffee beans and roasting them at home." Using a cast-iron skillet and instructions he found online, "I made a lot of crappy coffee," he admits. "But I guess it was kind of romantic, like making beer or wine at home."

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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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