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

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."

*     *     *

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.

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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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