Portola Coffee Lab's Jeff and Christa Duggan Are the Deans of Caffeine
Photo: Austen Risolvato | Design: Dustin Ames
"Lactose is a really interesting sugar," says Truman Severson, his hands punctuating his words. His hair side-slicked as though he were Clark Gable, complementing an Eton College professor outfit of a tie, brown tweed vest and browline glasses. On a Saturday afternoon, he holds court at Theorem, a six-seat tasting bar inside Portola Coffee Lab in Costa Mesa. He has just poured from a steel kettle a stream of water heated to 203 degrees, in a steady, circular pattern over dry coffee grounds resting in a shiny, chrome dripper that resembles an alien spacecraft.
The liquid darkens to a deep mahogany and trickles into a beaker-like glass vessel filled with perfectly formed ice cubes. After glancing at the numbers on a digital scale, then at the stopwatch in his hand, Severson removes the dripper, grabs a metal stick and gives the contents a stir. Three guests lean in over Theorem's black countertop, their eyes fixated. One man asks about the effects of adding milk—and that's when Severson launches into his lactose lecture.
"It is technically what we consider a polysaccharide, which is a complex sugar, but it's made up of two very weakly bound monosaccharides. So in the heating process, when we're steaming milk, we actually break down that lactose, which is a fairly large molecule, into two much smaller molecules and consequently, without changing the core value, make the milk appear to be twice as sweet because the lactose molecule by itself is so large it actually has trouble interacting with your tongue."
Heads nod in approval.
Meanwhile, outside the translucent sliding doors, crowds of java fiends—men in shorts and flip-flops, young couples with baby strollers, ladies toting shopping bags—swarm the main coffee bar, a retro-futuristic, Bunsen and Beaker-meets-steampunk wonderworld anchoring the OC Mix, an artisanal-boutique marketplace that's part of the SOCO Collection off the 405 freeway. Working behind a lime-green-and-bamboo island counter, tattooed baristas in white lab coats mix, measure and pour under the glow of halogen heaters as multichamber siphon towers bubble beside them. There are lab contraptions that would make Breaking Bad's Walter White cower—density meters, moisture meters, refractometers, laser calorimeters and water-testing kits. Customers watch the production as they wait for their orders, some holding up their iPhones to capture the scene.
All for a cuppa joe.
Standing beside the coffee roaster, a smokeless, low-emissions beast of a machine called the Revelation, Jeff Duggan peers at a MacBook screen, watching thin red and green lines climb on a chart as the temperature inside the steel drum rises. The espresso beans he's roasting, grown at the Hunatu cooperative in Antigua, Guatemala, are known for producing an impossibly smooth drink with a thick crema (the almighty foam) and tasting notes of cocoa, hazelnut and ripe stone fruit. One sip can cause even the most casual coffee drinker's eyes to roll back in a moment of bliss.
"Do you hear that popping?" Duggan says, scooping out a small sample of beans. A sweet, slightly chocolate-y scent fills the air. "We've just hit first crack."
He is the founder and owner of Portola Coffee Lab—or, as many like to call him, the company's chief mad scientist. There's nothing about him that screams Dr. Frankenstein or even Doc Brown, though. A 40-year-old father of three, he wears an untucked plaid shirt, geek glasses and a wide grin; his personality is friendly, approachable, anything but pretentious. (You can toss out those Portlandia comparisons now.) His vision of a third-wave coffee laboratory isn't just kitsch. A trained chemist, Duggan pushes his team to blend science, passion and soul-inspired artistry for one mission: to produce damn good coffee.
"We really felt customers would appreciate the natural flavors of coffee and wanted to create a coffee beverage that excited them," he says, his eyes widening. "We're getting them to understand that coffee has very unique nuances that they haven't experienced before."
Since Duggan and his wife, Christa, opened Portola two years ago, the craft-brew coffeehouse has changed the way folks in Orange County experience their morning jolt. There are no grandfatherly leather chairs, no shelves stacked with weathered books, no paintings by local artists. Gone are rows of Torani flavored syrups in pump containers and chalkboard menus listing hazelnut lattes and caramel macchiatos with mountains of whipped cream. Instead, the company starts with meticulously sourced beans and makes sure that through every step of the process—from storing to roasting to brewing to even pouring and drinking—the quality never falters, and the spectacle is put out for all to see.
This endless quest for improvement has taken Duggan across the world (just this year, he visited coffee farms in Kenya, Uganda, El Salvador, Costa Rica and Panama) and has spiraled into new ventures at a rapid pace (in January, he opened specialty tea shop Seventh Tea Bar; later this summer, Portola opens its second location in Old Towne Orange). It has also brought new standards for local coffeemakers—and himself.
"Anyone can turn green beans brown," Duggan says. "But to be great takes a commitment. Coffee roasting can be frustrating. I wake up in cold sweats at night, worrying about consistency. 'Did I really roast that Monte Verde the best that I could?'"
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."
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.
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.
Back home, Jeff is working on some final details for a Portola coffee bar at Provisions Market, a new craft-beer and specialty-food shop in Old Towne Orange. It will be a stark contrast to the original Lab. There will be no traditional coffee equipment visible; instead, everything will be formatted for easy interaction between baristas and customers, giving it a feel more akin to a cocktail bar. As for what's after that, Jeff simply says, "I don't think we're done in Orange County."
And then there's Seventh Tea Bar, a modern, yellow-and-black space with design elements inspired by the Victorian era. A menu focuses on single-estate unblended teas, hand-picked from different regions around the world. The machine marvel in the room is the Alpha Dominche Steampunk, a $15,000 computerized brewer that gives tea makers complete control. "We're coining the phrase 'second wave tea,'" Jeff says. "In the same way that third-wave coffee has transformed specialty coffee, no one has really taken that approach with tea. We're really geeking out on tea brewing, every bit as much as we did with coffee."
At the World Tea Expo held this month at the Las Vegas Convention Center, Jeff paced the aisles in a sea of tea makers, tea buyers, shop owners and equipment-manufacturer representatives. At every turn, there were mounds of teas displayed on little plates, some stringy like ghost chili threads, others shimmery like dried anchovies, with names such as African Chai, Bamboo Passion and Polynesian Plunge. Exhibitors in various ensembles—kimonos, Korean hanbok, safari hats—presented samples of brewed tea in tiny cups.
Jeff was searching for unique teas from lesser-known regions such as Nepal or Malaysia. He sniffed teas and tasted them. Meticulous sourcing, of course, is the first vital step.
And then comes the science.
"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."
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