Interview: M’lissa Roser (Portola Coffee Executive Director)

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Coffee Orange County

M'lissa Roser is a seasoned coffee pro who now handles key facets for Portola. [Jackie Lovato]

M’lissa Roser has experienced the full spectrum that coffee has to offer, from drinks that could double as dessert to beautifully roasted beans across the U.S. and in Scandinavia. She previously worked at cutting-edge bars like Octane Coffee in Atlanta, Ritual Coffee Roasters in San Francisco and Intelligentsia Venice and currently works for Orange County based Portola Coffee Roasters as their Executive Director. She’s recently been a driving force in the company’s more experimental Theorem menus and is instrumental in helping to steer retail, roasting, production, manufacturing, and staff education. I recently interviewed Roser by e-mail, and she shared some key personal coffee insights.

Joshua Lurie: What’s the very first cup of coffee you remember drinking?

M’lissa Roser: The first coffee I remember having was at a coffee shop in Boise, Idaho, called Moxie Java when I was in the 7th or 8th grade (aka the mid ’90s) and I ordered a “Turtle Mocha” and it had actual pieces of candy on top! It was the caffeinated sugar rush of my dreams!

JL: What do you remember about your very first barista shift? Where were you working, and what were your initial impressions?

MR: My very first barista job was at Caribou Coffee in the Atlanta suburb of Roswell, Georgia, and I was 16. I don’t actually remember much from my very first shift! I remember I was intimidated at the beginning, by the number of drinks to memorize, all of the coffee descriptors I needed to know and physical aspect of the job, but by the time I graduated high school and moved on from Caribou my favorite position was working the drive thru bar because of the level of multitasking necessary.

JL: Was it a given that you’d work with coffee for a living, or did you consider other careers?

MR: I worked in coffee for years before I even realized that coffee could be a career!

I went to beauty school and really envisioned being a stylist as my future until I was introduced to specialty coffee. After my first trip to Scandinavia and the Nordic Barista Cup I knew I wasn’t quitting coffee for the foreseeable future, and here we are almost 15 years after that first trip!

JL: How did the current opportunity come about with Portola Coffee? What is your role, and why was this position such a good fit?

MR: A couple of years ago I got married and moved from L.A. to Orange County and commuted to L.A. for work. We first met Jeff Duggan while I was judging a latte art competition and he was also a judge. My husband and I chatted with him about coffee, cars and beer for a majority of the evening but I didn’t really put it together to inquire about employment for several months. Portola initially hired me as Director of Education and I developed a foundational training program called PUCK – Portola University of Coffee Knowledge – that covers everything from extraction, espresso and milk to sensory training and bar flow. Until last month I have primarily been focused on training and implementing systems in the shops. My new role is Executive Director. This new position will enable me to have oversight into more aspects of Portola like our retail stores, roasting, production and manufacturing and as well as education to continue to grow and develop all the staff to be the most well-rounded and confident coffee professionals they can be! I think Portola is such a good fit for me at this stage of my career because of the people behind it. Jeff and Christa Duggan have created a company with values and a vision that I completely align myself with. Let’s share beautiful coffees with everyone!

JL: You’re now a driving force in the more experimental Theorem menu. What are some keys to concocting a great coffee cocktail?

MR: Showcasing how delicious coffee is with a variety of flavors has long been one of my favorite things! Theorem is meant to make people think, so the key is to find flavors that customers may not realize are naturally present in coffee and then find the recipe that highlights but balances that flavor. Our last menu was Tiki themed and showcased citrus and florals in every drink. Our current menu is based around synesthesia to discuss the colors people taste in coffee! Theorem is the perfect platform to start conversations about how amazingly versatile coffee can be, and that there’s a drink for every customer’s personal preference.

JL: Who have been some of your most important coffee mentors over the years, and what wisdom did they impart?

MR: I’ve been so lucky to have so many mentors, peers and colleagues who motivated and inspired me throughout the years. Firstly, were all the people I met in Scandinavia and through Nordic Barista Cup in the mid-2000’s – James Hoffmann, Tim Wendelboe, Klaus Thomsen, Anette Moldvaer, Bjorg Brend, and the list could go on – besides teaching me how to actually roast and brew coffee and pour milk, they showed me that coffee has no boundaries and can take you wherever you want to go in the world. Coffee creates communities and friendships that can last a lifetime. Then I met Peter Giuliano at Counter Culture Coffee. Peter taught me how to talk about coffee. He taught me that coffee itself is the conversation, not only the vocabulary we use to describe its tastes and aromas, but about the people who grow it and the lives that are dedicated to producing it. And I will always be grateful for the mentorship from Kyle Glanville, he was more than just a boss for 6 years. He taught me that leadership is more than management and that leaders create teams and environments that can bring people together. He also taught me that it takes teams to accomplish that and it’s ok to ask for help.

JL: What are your favorite aspects of working in the coffee world?

MR: My favorite part is the people. The people who grow it, roast it, brew it and enjoy it.

JL: What’s one misconception about specialty coffee – if that’s even a term that you use anymore – that you’d like to see the general public grasp?

MR: There are many things that I think we can continue to teach the public about coffee, but one of my focuses now is about specialty coffee being the quality of the green coffee itself. That specialty isn’t about a cool café, the packaging or even the beverage but that quality of the green coffee and the work that it takes to grow. If we want to continue having high quality coffees we need to focus on the farmers and their families and the sustainability of the ground it grows in.

JL: Who’s the person you’d be most excited to see order coffee from you, and why?

MR: Michelle Obama. I think that serving her coffee and telling her the story behind it – about the coffee or the house-made syrup or Straus Family Creamery – I can just imagine how that experience could empower me for a lifetime.


Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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