Portola Coffee Lab is not one to shy away from hyperbole. Take, for example, its unabashed declaration that it has “the best fresh-roasted coffee in the world”. Or the title of a recent post on its blog: “Our Coffee Roaster is Saving the Planet.” Confident claims indeed, claims that any one of the shop's baristas are more than happy to substantiate as they pull shots from its $18,000 Slayer machine, or pour iced coffee from its Kyoto-style slow drip filter. All you have to do is drive down to Costa Mesa to hear and taste the evidence.
Portola is located in the OC Mart Mix, a mixed-use retail building that is billed as “a vibrant gathering of like-minded vendors who will thrive on synergy.” The Mix is floor to ceiling with windows, and the shops bathe in this sunlight: a hatter, an artisan olive and wine shop, an environmentally conscious women's clothier, among others. When you finally happen upon Portola, standing freely in the middle of the mall with baristas in lab coats, it's a bit like the first time you wandered into a random Hollywood strip mall and discovered the gem that is Lou, or when Fox Mulder broke into a government facility and stumbled upon human clones cataloguing vials of human ova: a bit unexpected, but in retrospect, completely logical.
Portola's laboratory theme might be a bit kitschy, with the starchy white lab coats and menus printed on graph paper, but its approach to coffee is anything but. Beans are carefully sourced and roasted on-site in a Revelation roaster, a hybrid machine that, as Portola's owner and roaster Jeff Duggan explains, “uses 1/3 of the energy of any other roaster its size and produces 1/3 of the pollutants as well. It operates by cleaning the exhaust air and recirculating this already heated and clean air back into the roaster to reduce its operational demand.” The result is an “ultra-efficient” roaster that produces no smoke, consumes very little gas, and coffee free of the oxidation that often degrades the bean's flavor.
Portola's search for the perfect machinery does not stop at the roaster. The shop's brewing methods span time and technologies, all with a heavy emphasis on a barista's skills: the steampunkish siphon filter method is a throwback to an industrial age that used vapor pressure and a vacuum to produce a clean cup of coffee. Fast-forwarding to this era, a BUNN Trifecta machine offers several variable settings to fine tune each individually brewed cup. Or one may opt for the manual pour-over.
The piece de resistance, however, may be that expensive Slayer. Unlike other more automated espresso machines, the Slayer permits complete control over the water pressure forced through the coffee grounds, giving a barista the ability to extract a shot of espresso with certain nuanced flavors that otherwise may be lost in other, non-variable machines. Our shot of Portola's first espresso blend, “Show No Mercy” – aptly named after Slayer-the-band's debut album – indeed was quite delicious: clean, almost sweet, with a surprising hint of caramel. Rob Zombie, eat your heart out.
Portola also offers iced coffee made with a Kyoto-style dripper. This slow (8 hour) process drips water methodically onto grounds to produce a robust, concentrated cup of coffee.
Despite the America's Test Kitchen-like approach to coffee, however, Portola aims to have the affable, friendly, approachable personality of Alton Brown. Duggan, for example, often roasts during the shop's business hours so that mall visitors and shop customers can learn about the process first-hand. There also are plans to host public cuppings to teach coffee lovers how to compare and contrast different coffees through taste, smell, and slurp.
Portola hopes that its machinery and philosophy will teach us to better appreciate that morning cup of joe. Even if seeing the evolution of your coffee from roast to brew doesn't convince the cosmopolitan in you that that Portola offers the best fresh-roasted coffee in the world, the metropolitan in you might be at least convinced that the shop is on its way to becoming one of the best coffee roasters in Southern California. No exaggeration.