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
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.'"
* * *
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."