Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Portola Coffee Lab dedicated to coffee cause

Portola Coffee Lab lends artistic flair to brewing.


Hannah Caprara

Portola strives to make an art and science out of their coffee brewing techniques. | Hannah Caprara/THE CHIMES

Mack Hayden and Mack Hayden

Portola strives to make an art and science out of their coffee brewing techniques. | Hannah Caprara/THE CHIMES


Seeing Portola Coffee Lab’s set-up is almost as important as smelling its wonderful aroma. Located inside Costa Mesa’s OC Mart Mix, you get the feeling that everything here is perfectly compartmentalized. Push open the doors of this indoor mall and most other stores are located in boxy cubicles. Portola, however, is more open than anything else you’ll find inside. It stands out as a cutting-edge oasis amid postmodern consumerism. Shades of green and splashes of white catch your eye off guard with pristine clarity. This is a coffee shop contra coffee shops, attempting to cultivate an atmosphere entirely different from virtually every other cafe you’ve been to. While most seek to invoke folksy hospitality, Portola’s stark setup gets you right into the action.

The baristas are craftsmen and innovators. They treat latte art with the aesthetic care of Michelangelo, espresso shots like they each carry the impact and potential of a caffeinated Manhattan Project. Decked out in lab coats, the baristas ensure the customer their drink will be handled and made with scientific certainty. Is this, then, a cafe only for the initiated or pretentious? Certainly not! Each of these coffee ground alchemists truly love what they do and create with a sense of invitation. You needn’t be an expert to shop here but you’ll want to be by the time you leave.

Varieties of flavors and brewing techniques

So what of the libations themselves? There are a multitude of flavors, origins and brewing methods from which to choose — and that’s just the coffee. The Hario pour-over is the normal drip technique with which everyone who owns an at-home coffeemaker is familiar. At Portola, though, you get a very human Mr. or Mrs. Coffee watchfully allowing water to flow from a kettle onto the beans as they filter into a finished drink. The siphon sends scalding water up and down in what looks like a particularly entertaining chemistry experiment. The Trifecta method is most similar to the French press, a glee-inducing buzzword to coffee aficionados.

As for the types of coffee themselves, the Guatemalan and Kenyan blends are both worthy of extensive applause. For cheap thrills, a la Knott’s Berry Farm, you have to go for the Guatemalan, a fruity blend that comes cheaper than most and is described by one barista as “peach cobbler in a cup.” For a more expensive kick, a la Six Flags Magic Mountain, the Kenyan is the nectar that drips from the lips of Zeus himself. There is no better cup of joe in Orange County than that which this sub-Saharan bean provides. Not to mention, all the beans are freshly roasted on site.

Dedication sets it apart from neighborhood Starbucks

Portola’s product is inspiring enough by itself but it’s the dedication that truly sets the shop apart. Everyone here is the cream of the crop, completely sold out for the coffee cause. Portola’s very presence indicates a sort of revolutionary discontent. Cafes have become normalized in American culture and there’s a Starbucks on every corner. For that matter, just about any form of artistry has reached a generic point of consumerism that could make anyone with a sense of devotion cringe. Coffee chains make a name for themselves by selling substandard products efficiently. Speed wins the war over craft every time … except for here.

Let’s not mince words here: No matter what drink you get, it’ll take longer to make here than anywhere else in Orange County. Hyperdrive soccer moms may find it hard to stake their claim here. But Portola’s wild success is a testament to their bringing something of great worth to the table. We need to slow down to enjoy and to love. The sow-and-reap patterns of instant gratification are wholly unsustainable. The Internet age is sprinting when it should be cooling down. Portola Coffee Lab exists as a sort of reversal. If a coffee shop can get you to wait like they do, who knows what could be next? Next time your coffee’s cooling down, why don’t you try cooling down too? Products can be tipped back on the go but art needs to be appreciated. Just relax.

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