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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

He kept at it, and over the years, he began buying fancier toys, from a shiny, red Sonofresco 1-pound roaster to a Diedrich HR-1. "I thought he was crazy getting a $3,000 coffee roaster for our kitchen," says Christa, a bubbly Baltimore transplant who met Jeff at a computer-security training class in Costa Mesa back in 2000. "Can you just imagine what the delivery guy must have thought?"

At night, under the screen name "Crackalicious"—a reference to the "first crack" step of the roasting process, when steam pressure builds up inside a coffee bean and causes it to split, creating a popping noise—Duggan posted questions on online forums. "I'd be like, 'Hey, I've got this new Brazil. It was grown at this elevation and processed this way. What would be a good starting point in terms of the drying period?' Or, 'I'm having trouble getting the fruit character on this coffee. I know that it's there.' It was a troubleshooting type of thing."

It was as a home roaster that Jeff learned about the delicateness of coffee beans and the importance of freshness. "I realized that coffee can get stale," he says. "Coffee two weeks after it has been roasted will not taste the same as it did during that two-week freshness period." He also learned how to rely on his five senses to achieve an ideal roast.

Jeff Duggan roasting on-site
Austen Risolvato
Jeff Duggan roasting on-site
A siphon pot, ready to brew
Austen Risolvato
A siphon pot, ready to brew

Location Info

Map

Portola Coffee Lab

3313 Hyland Ave., Ste. C
Costa Mesa, CA 92626

Category: Restaurant > Bakery

Region: Costa Mesa

Friends reaped the benefits of his hobby. "People would come over and ask, 'What do you have this week?'" Christa recalls. "Our house had a very distinct smell."

In 2007, Jeff and Christa had a baby boy named Gabriel. He was born with a rare heart defect called hypoplastic right ventricle. Surgeries kept him in the hospital for months at a time. On days he was home, Christa had to drive him to therapy sessions. The couple was eventually forced to make some life changes.

"I was like, 'What in the world are we going to do?'" says Christa, who was running the nonprofit division of a venture-capital company at the time. "There was no way I could keep my job, and we needed some other income."

She looked to Jeff, who even in times of grief would stay up at night roasting coffee beans. "It was cathartic in a way," Christa says.

"Roasting has always been my departure," Jeff adds. "It took my mind off stressful things in life."

*     *     *

Jeff Duggan had toyed with the idea of turning coffee into a career and decided 2009 was the right time. He and Christa rented a tiny alcove of Layer Cake Bakery in Irvine, roasting beans every Saturday morning and selling them online to wholesale clients and on-site. They named the company Portola Handcrafted Coffee Roasters after Spanish explorer Gaspar de Portolà, who led the first European expedition through what's now Orange County. Nearly every morning, people would walk past Layer Cake with no thought of entering, then suddenly stop and peek inside thanks to the aromas wafting from within. Most had never seen raw coffee beans (which resemble soybeans or peanuts), so Jeff would put some in their hands and invite them to touch and smell them. He didn't brew any of it himself, though Layer Cake used the beans exclusively.

A number of customers complained the coffee wasn't roasted enough. For Jeff, this was an opportunity to educate people on light-roasted coffee, the star of third-wave coffeeshops that's generally sweeter, brighter and more acidic than its scorched predecessors. "I told them my roast style is to not trample upon the beautiful flavors in the bean that I had worked so hard to source," he says. Many listened—and then came back for more.

From that little space, Portola gained a loyal following. "It was totally grassroots," Christa says. "I would just make friends on Twitter and be like, 'Guess what? You can get fresh-roasted coffee, and we'll deliver it to your house!'"

After about a year at Layer Cake, they started itching to open their own brick-and-mortar coffeehouse. One day, in 2010, Christa happened to read a blurb in Greer's OC, a local events e-newsletter, about a new retail center called the OC Mart Mix opening up in Costa Mesa, an open-air marketplace inspired by the bustling San Francisco Ferry Building. Developers were scouting for tenants. "I was like, 'Jeff, Jeff! Have you heard about this?'" Christa says.

They met with the landlords, Burnham Ward Properties, who loved the Duggans' vision and signed them on. Then they started getting nervous.

"I remember driving around and saying, 'We can't do this,'" Christa recalls. "I was thinking, 'Are we going to have no customers because all they want is a blended Frappuccino?'"

Jeff felt more assured. "I had faith in Orange County as a culinary region," he says. "But I also knew there was no way we could open without having an educational approach that was far beyond any other coffeehouse in existence."

Portola Coffee Lab opened in May 2011 and has been packed ever since. Jeff put together a dedicated staff (each barista goes through six months of training) and unveiled specialty brewing equipment that coffee geeks drooled over—a steampunk-esque siphon bar, Trifecta single-cup brewers, a Hario V-60 pour-over, and a showstopping $18,000, hand-built espresso machine called Slayer that allowed baristas to highlight or mute certain flavors in each shot.

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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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