From the moment Portola Coffee Lab opened in Costa Mesa’s OC Mart Mix in 2011, Jeff Duggan’s forward thinking company invited scrutiny thanks to their outfits (lab coats) and brewing equipment (space age). However, the presentation also reinforced an important point about specialty coffee: it’s a science, with measurements accounting for pre- and post-grind weight, dilution and TDS, to name just three considerations. Leading companies invest in scientific equipment like refractometers and gas chromatographs to ensure precision. Portola had lofty goals, and the short-term culmination of their vision is Theorem, a six-seat, personalized bar located in a stall that previously held a flower shop.
A SEATING SCHEDULE advertises two types of service beyond the sliding door: a BREW BAR with “a la carte specialty coffees,” “no reservations,” and a “walk-up bar,” with a menu that changes daily depending on seasonal coffees and optimal barista brewing preferences; and the CRAFT SERVICE EXPERIENCE, featuring “unique concept menus,” “reservation only” and “presentation style” from personable Theorem manager Truman Severson.
We scheduled a Craft Service Experience. Severson crafts a different themed menu each week, which typically consists of three courses, costs $20, and lasts one hour. He has a room full of equipment at his disposal, including a Nuova Simonelli espresso machine (earmarked for replacement by a Slayer), a vintage Le San Marco lever machine, and a Turkish ibrik.
Severson previously featured barrel aged coffee and a liquid nitrogen affogato. If we’d visited one week later, we would have experienced a prix fixe decaf coffee menu. What we did witness – and you’ll have to imagine, since they don’t allow Craft Service Experience photos – was a study of international coffee beverages that incorporate milk and sugar.
Severson said he researched approximately 20 coffee, milk and sugar options from around the world and presented three to us: a Cuban Cortado, Greek Frappe and Vietnamese Ca Phe Sura Da, each featuring a balanced, not especially bright San Francisco single-origin coffee from El Salvador, which Duggan roasted 20 feet away.
The cortado apparently originated about a century ago, with Havana coffee drinkers working to eliminate Italian-style espresso’s bitterness by pulling shots of espresso with sugar in the portafilter along with the coffee grounds, resulting in simultaneously over-extracted and under-extracted espresso that sugar muted. Severson adjusted for proper extraction, featuring one part espresso for two parts steamed milk and a sprinkle of unrefined sugar granules up top.
Greek Frappe is generally served in a tall, thin glass of at least 12-ounces, with coffee at the base, Straus milk in the middle, and at least at Theorem, Kyoto cold brew foam up top. We stirred the drink and sipped through a glass straw.
Severson grew up in Little Saigon, surrounded by Vietnamese coffee (Ca Phe Sura Da), which is typically over-roasted and tamed with sweetened condensed milk. At Portola, they don’t intentionally over-roast, so Severson adjusted the coffee-to-water ratio. He made the sweetened condensed milk using Straus dairy and served the drink over Kold-Draft ice.
Severson provided historical context, did a good job of explaining his thought process, not only for each drink, but also for Theorem in general, and was ready when barraged with questions both technical and pragmatic.