One Cup at a Time
By Kelly von Hemert
Portola Coffee Lab’s Jeff Duggan is part chemistry geek, part IT guy, so it’s not surprising his laboratory-style setting is outfitted with a Revelation hybrid drum roaster, a Hario halogen-heated pour-over bar, and a Slayer pressure-profiling espresso machine. The SoCal native started roasting coffee in shared space with Irvine’s Layer Cake Bakery in 2009, and opened his Costa Mesa coffee lab at The OC Mart Mix in June. Whether you want a house-made ganache-topped mocha made with Bali single-origin espresso, or a siphon-brewed Alchemistic Mélange, each cup is prepared to order. Latte foam art is standard, but this staff goes beyond palm frond. Expect a phoenix or a swan.
Revelation, Slayer, and Hario sound like gamer avatars, not coffee-making equipment. Is this the future?
It’s a mix of vintage and Space Age because a lot of what we’re doing is a throwback to analog times—taking something as simple as hot water and pouring it over freshly roasted coffee grounds. In the Industrial Age, everything became a matter of convenience. Coffee was designed to improve convenience at the sacrifice of taste. So we’re trying to get back to where it should be. With new technology, we’re able to customize to the nth degree and bring out things in the coffee that we’re not able to do using other methods.
What experiments did you do as a kid?
I was intrigued with processes and understanding the whys, you know, combining unknown substances. I had the test tubes, the microscope. I loved to make fires with a magnifying glass. Normal kid stuff, right?
You studied chemistry?
I have a technology degree from UC Riverside.
That fits in here.
It does. There are a lot of gadgets in our shop. Especially the three single-cup brewers. It’s all about programming the custom profile. We spend hours upon hours dialing in our specialty coffees using the Bunn Trifecta [which has programming capabilities]. I tweak the profile to highlight what’s amazing about each coffee.
Are your customers high maintenance?
Not at all. We’re experiencing people who have heard about us and are traveling from afar, as well as the über coffee geeks who are already familiar with some of the techniques. At the opposite end of the spectrum, we have people who walk in and say, “I just want a cup of black coffee.”
What do you look for in a barista?
A passion for coffee, great communication skills, and the ability to learn.
I’m passionately in love with the beverage itself. It’s very dynamic. The industry is constantly changing. The equipment, the techniques are evolving, new coffees are coming into play, varietals. I’m always learning. It’s probably the reason I was able to hold jobs, and why I could get somebody to tolerate me enough to marry me. I love beer, I love wine—but coffee is something I can drink lots of every day and not feel guilty or like I need help.
A day without coffee?
It’s like a soda without fizz. It exists, but I’m just not myself. It just doesn’t make sense.
Which single-origin coffee do you think is best enjoyed with food?
There are two that pair well. My Ethiopian tends to be a little brighter with some nice berry notes, some subtleties, and some nuances to it that make it fabulous with chocolate. My Brazil is such a versatile coffee, not extreme in either direction. It has rich, creamy, nutty, cocoa nuances to it.
Which is best enjoyed on its own?
Right now I would say my Bali. It’s aggressive in the experience it offers and the flavors it presents. It wants to compete with whatever you’re pairing with it. It’s got a brandied cherry profile with a little bit of cocoa. It’s selfish. It doesn’t want anything else around it.
Your most popular drink?
It’s a toss-up. On the espresso side, we sell mostly lattes made from our Show No Mercy blend, or the single-origin choice, which currently is Tanzanian Teaberry.
Your wife, Christa Duggan, is co-owner. Who makes the morning coffee?
I am a bit OCD. If I wake up first, I’ll usually take that process hostage and do it myself.
How does Christa take her coffee?
I know the answer to this, but I’m a little reluctant to say. It’s something I razz her about constantly: She loves her cappuccinos and her lattes.
So you’re a purist. Do you cringe when she orders?
Not at all. I respect those drinks. She does drink certain coffees black, which I fully respect and encourage, but there are times when she likes a little cream and sugar in there.
And you just let it slide?
I pick my battles.
Portola Coffee Lab
3313 Hyland Ave.
Photograph by Joseph Escamilla
This article originally appeared in the September 2011 issue.