For The Love of Coffee: Portola Coffee Lab
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Costa Mesa, CA

For The Love of Coffee: Portola Coffee Lab

People usually say “when it rains it pours” in reference to a terrible day, or a streak of bad luck. For Jeff Duggan, owner/roaster of Portola Coffee Lab, this year it poured—but in a four-layered-tulip-in-a-macchiato-cup kind of way. It’s beautiful, it takes skill, and it’s hard to pull off; mostly because it’s a lot to fit into one tiny cup. Jeff did it though. He fit so much into this year, and pulled it all off beautifully. It started with Roasters United, a project in collaboration with Mike Perry of Klatch, and Chuck Patton of Bird Rock Coffee Roasters, using incentive-based competitions with farmers in Colombia to better their coffee at the source. This project was truly unique, focusing on sustainable practices to improve the quality of the coffee grown at origin. It was a win-win, for the founders as well as the farmers, who were able to get feedback on their coffee, and experiment with new techniques in processing. The good streak continued with success when Jeff won Micro Roaster of the Year, his third time trying for the award. To top it off, Jeff is wrapping up opening three new shops in one year, no easy feat for a small business. Who could have dreamed up a more successful year for Jeff? For Portola?

Portola Coffee Lab was named after an explorer who traveled the coast of California: Graspar de Portola. For a while, the shop was turning heads with their baristas clad in lab coats, behind their glass island-style bar, affixed with siphons and kyoto brewers. The theme feels straight out of a science textbook, which would make sense considering Jeff’s background is in chemistry. Luckily science isn’t unimaginative; the Costa Mesa location is also home to Theorem, a concept bar that allows its baristas to come up with unique creative menus. During our interview, one of Jeff’s baristas brought us two pour overs and an espresso, asking for feedback and comparison each time, giving me not only a sense of knowledge of the craft, but of the passion behind it. It certainly stems from Jeff, who is a self-made roaster. Jeff started home roasting as a hobby, and quickly turned it into a successful career.  This seems to be a trend in specialty coffee professionals—this beautiful spark of interest that stems from an experience or a sensory reaction to coffee, and begins a lifetime of chasing after the perfect cup. Jeff’s story is no different, and to have achieved all that he has this year is truly remarkable.

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Were you always a coffee drinker, or when did you pick that up?

Jeff:  Yes, I mean, like many of us, I think growing up stealing sips off our parent’s coffee was not all that uncommon, and certainly that was the case for me. I just loved the flavor—although, of course it was bombarded with cream and sugar back then. The sweetness, as a kid, was probably equally attractive to the coffee flavor.

Was there a “eureka moment” where you made a switch? Was there something that you tasted and thought, “wow, thats amazing,” that made you more inclined to drink specialty coffee?

J: I would say that didn’t come until later when I took on the hobby of home roasting, and that was about ten years before I started Portola. This Costa Mesa location wasn’t our first location. I had a small sixty square foot space with a five pound roaster that I put in a bakery in Irvine, and that was around 2009, so rewind ten years, and that’s when I started home roasting.

I stumbled across this article on home roasting and green coffee, it really intrigued me, and I decided to try it, and ordered some beans and used some very basic equipment just because I didn’t want to spend a lot of money on it until I knew I liked it.  I made a whole bunch of terrible coffee before it started even remotely tasting decent. It wasn’t until I started to just randomly hit a good roast and taste it where I was just like, “Oh my God.”

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You have a background is in science, do you think that gives you an advantage in the roasting process, and also in the way you think about what you’re experiencing with your flavors?

J: I think its helped tremendously. It’s not that you need a chemistry degree to roast or to brew coffee, but just understanding the basic scientific process, and how to go about properly testing something so that you know when you make a change you can identify what caused that change. So its all about limiting variables, it’s all about documentation. There are a lot of compounds in coffee that are chemical compounds. Having a chemistry background helped me to better understand when they talk about the volatilization of these compounds and whatnot, to kind of understand the language, because there’s some pretty old textbooks out there about coffee and the chemistry of coffee that are certainly not easy reads. Having that background, I was able to probably get through it more so than the average person because it is really dry and boring and confusing; in those ways I would say it’s helped quite a bit.

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Let’s talk about how you roast. Do you have a bunch of recipes that you go by, or do you just see what the bean likes, and test it through the lengths of the spectrum to see what it likes to be?

J: I would say a little bit of both. Now, I was a home roaster for many years, like I said, but when I got into the commercial side, it was a very different environment because there’s a lot more at stake. The batch sizes are bigger and consistency was something I never really had to pay attention to as a home roaster. It’s like, “Oh well, if it tastes different, it still tastes good, I don’t care right?” If I screw up a batch and it doesn’t taste good this week, I’ll still drink it. So getting into the commercial environment I had to pay way more attention to what it takes to be not only a good roaster but a consistent roaster, because hitting the mark even 75% of the time is not good enough. Our customers expect that week after week they come in to get their drink, it’s gonna taste exactly the same and, when it doesn’t, it’s a problem. They fall in love with it for a reason, because it tastes a certain way, so if it’s off, they don’t know if it’s the roast, if it was brewed improperly, they don’t know what’s going on, they just know that this isn’t the same.

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You use a US Roasting Corps roaster; what are some of the advantages to that machine?

J: My roaster is a bit of an odd machine because of the whole South Coast Air Quality Management District guidelines. Basically it’s a southern California thing in San Bernardino County, Riverside County, LA County, and Orange County—those four areas make up the South Coast District. They have the most strict air quality guidelines in the entire world, and it’s changing right now. They started off with this very strict rule and they applied it to everybody. The smallest of operators to the huge industrial, they treated everyone the same.

But now they’re realizing they need to focus more on the gross polluters, and not inhibit the small operator from being able to thrive or even get into the business.

Long story short I had to outfit this machine with this burner that didn’t exist, and I couldn’t find any  roaster out there that would meet their guidelines, and I didn’t find any other roaster manufacturer that would work with me except for U.S. Roasters.

It’s certainly not an air roaster. It’s still very much a conductive drum roaster but—to throw a number out—if an average drum roaster was ninety per cent conductive, ten per cent convective, we’re probably sitting around seventy/thirty. I’m not going to say it’s the best of both worlds, but it takes what’s good from an air roaster and what’s so wonderful about a drum roaster and kind of brings them together in some sense where I’m getting some real acidity, some bright complex fruits and florals, but still not sacrificing the body.

I’m a big drum fan. I’ve used an air roaster before for many years, I’m very familiar with that style of coffee, but I would still choose a drum roaster every time. That’s what is unique about this machine, and also is why it’s so difficult to roast on, because with that very convective process, trying to control the environment is much more challenging. It’s almost like I had to relearn everything over. All the machines I’ve used in the past just didn’t translate so it’s a huge learning curve. It took me about six months of being open before I was like, “okay I think I’ve got this.” It was really challenging in the beginning.

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Let’s talk about Roasters United, and your work with them. You talk about incentive based experiments for the farmers, and I want to know, how were they received? Were the farmers excited about this opportunity, were they putting up a wall?

J: The people who were involved were very excited about it and, even after that project, we saw one of the farmers we worked with selling to a very reputable importer in the U.S.—one that they whose radar they likely wouldn’t have been otherwise. And that’s what it’s about.

For the amount of farmers that get involved, it’s not like we’re going to be able to buy all their coffee, but it accomplishes several things. It gets them to understand first and foremost that quality matters. Most of us know that there are many farmers out there that never taste their coffee. Huge problem right? We just come in and say, “we’re running this program, it’s a competition,  you’re going to get a lot of good things out of it, but you need to work hard and think about what you can do to improve.”

If we can come in and help them maybe find a piece of equipment, or the traditional way that they’ve been fermenting hasn’t proved very effective, maybe we can say, “Well, we want you to try it this way, this way, and this way. Take your lots, split them up three ways; we will buy this coffee no matter what happens to it.”

So the risk is then taken off the farmer. We assume the risk, and that’s good for them; if it’s great, we can continue to work with them. If it’s not, at least they were able to try something without affecting their bottom line. It’s their livelihood. But offering the cash prizes—the cash prizes have to go to farm improvement, so what that does is it sends the message that this isn’t about just winning and getting a prize—it’s about your future. .

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Micro Roaster of the Year. How did that feel for you? And how do you think it trickled down into your cafe, your baristas and how they engage the customer?

J: It goes without saying that it was incredibly exciting. It was something we’ve been gunning for for three years. First year I applied, I didn’t make it to the finals. The second year I applied, I made it to the finals, but got beat. And then this year—it was weird, I don’t know that I had it in me to continue to apply, because it’s a lot. I mean, not only just putting together the application which I think was thirty pages long, and just wracking your brain.

I knew our shops were opening, and I knew it was going to take my attention away, and I knew June and July would come up real quick. So I wanted to really make sure we did everything we could to make it. And the funny thing is, everything that went into that application is stuff we’d either already been doing or the Roasters United Project, which we were talking about the year prior and knew we were going to do that year.

When we did win, it was incredibly rewarding, it was incredibly relieving as well. And it really is a company-wide reward. I try not to talk about anyone individually in terms of that accomplishment. Between our mission, sustainable practices, education practices, our involvement in the industry, roasting innovation, marketing, I mean it really does cover all the bases. Everyone from our bar backs to our roaster—everyone played a part, and if everyone wasn’t doing their part than certainly I wouldn’t be able to travel and source and work on these projects. We wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for our customers, so if we’re not serving drinks and being nice to customers, and trying to keep our quality up then we really don’t have a business. It’s funny, we talk about all the sexier things in the industry, right? But bottom line is, everyday, serving the customers is what it’s all about. Thats why we get into it.

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What could be more of a fairytale ending for someone who has such passion, intellect, and integrity? Jeff’s story confirms that long, exhausting work and doing things the right way pay off in the end.

Jeff has the same radiant glow on his face, the same twinkle in his eye, as someone who’s just finished telling you about their new fiancé or new child. That look is love; love for what he’s doing, for what he’s created,  his Portola team, for the craft and the community that surrounds it. This truly has been Jeff’s year.

Portola Coffee Lab
3313 Hyland Ave, Costa Mesa, CA 92626

 

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