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
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.
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.