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
It was a lot to take in for a customer who simply wandered in for a latte. Arvind Murthy, a regular from Fullerton, describes what the Portola experience is like for a first-timer. "You see all these very intimidating towers and siphons, and you have no idea what's going on," he says. "But nothing is behind walls. You see the process, and all the barriers and pretension are taken away. And then you have to order something. You can say, 'I want a coffee.' But you have to decide—do I want a Trifecta or a pour-over or a siphon? If you don't say anything, they educate you in that 30-second transaction. It really opens it up."
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Since that first year of business, when writing about their coffee-making contraptions on the Portola blog, Jeff and the team have never shied away from hyperbole. "Our coffee roaster is saving the planet," one headline declared, referring to the Revelation. "Our espresso machine can kick your espresso machine's a**," another post challenged.
But with all the fancy specs and enormous price tags of the gadgetry, people simply wanted to know one thing: Does all of this make for a better drink?
Absolutely, says Jeff. "The craft doesn't change, yet I'm able to produce better and more consistent coffee using state-of-the-art technology than by merely using my senses. It's not a slight—there are plenty of people roasting good coffee on vintage machines, but consistency is far more challenging. I'm not roasting for myself; I'm roasting for customers, who expect their coffee to be the same today as it will be in a month."
The results can be best summed up by the drinkers themselves. Of Portola's mocha, food blogger Eatosaurus Rex wrote, "If there was a contraption I could hook up that could shoot this stuff directly into my mouth, I wouldn't wear it because that's super-ridiculous, but I'd probably give it some serious consideration." Writer Gary Ramsey wrote that the latte "blew my taste buds away" with "a bit of nuttiness, notes of chocolate with rich overall lingering flavors." OC Weekly gave Portola the Best Coffee crown in 2011.
For Jeff, it's a testament to the team's unyielding precision. To fine-tune their techniques, they roast each type of bean on a sample roaster (about 100th the size of the full-scale roaster) anywhere from six to 15 different ways. They then use a method called cupping, a ritualized blind taste test in which no one knows which coffee is on the table. "We let the coffee decide for itself where it should be roasted rather than applying our opinion," Severson says. "We've coined the term 'roast to flavor' rather than 'roast to profile' simply because we don't roast in that traditional way."
They've used the same blind method to test coffee add-ons, available on a side counter for those who prefer them. In the battle of the sweeteners, raw sugar beat out refined sugar, and Truvia trumped Equal, Splenda, Stevia and Sweet'N Low. As for dairy, half-and-half tasted better in Portola coffee than whole milk and nonfat milk. Right now, they're also trying to figure out how to make a blended, dairy-free milk that doesn't distract from the coffee, as soy or almond milk can. Severson says it will be some combination of cashews, almonds, dates and coconuts, a mixture complex enough it won't taste like any one of those ingredients.
The Portola people are pushing the limits of coffee in other ways, too. Mixologists at Theorem use coffee as a creative ingredient in such avant-garde concoctions as distilled coffee, barrel-aged coffee, coffee sours, Italian shaved-ice coffee and coffee bloody Marys. "That's our playground," Jeff says. "There, we do stuff that we want to do, not the stuff we have to do." Portola has also teamed up with local breweries—Beachwood, Tustin Brewery, the Bruery, Noble Ale Works and others—to create coffee-infused beers. (Coffee Monster, a collaboration with Pizza Port in Carlsbad, won a silver medal at the Great American Beer Festival in 2011.) Baristas regularly teach classes such as Coffee 101 for anyone who wants to learn more about the crop and the cup. And since Portola has staked its ground, the Orange County coffee scene has upped its game: Gypsy Den in Santa Ana has started brewing espresso from Golden State Coffee Roasters, and acclaimed Los Angeles-based artisan coffee roaster Cafecito Organico opened a location in Costa Mesa last year.
Recently, Jeff has turned his focus to direct trade, buying beans directly from the producer. This allows him to put more profit in the pockets of coffee farmers than they'd receive under fair-trade standards. Ninety percent of Portola's coffee is direct trade, an astonishing amount for a shop of its size. Traveling through third-world countries in South America and Africa has been "life changing," Jeff says. "I always come back from a trip feeling different, appreciative. Things tend to bother me less." While visiting Kenya in February, he developed a partnership with the Ruthaka Cooperative, a group of farmers and processing mills in which 40 percent of managers are women. The Duggans plans to help upgrade the cooperative's coffee-cherry sorting beds, as well as other improvements.