Portola Coffee Lab - Costa Mesa, CA


A bearded man with a beanie and sunglasses strolls into the coffee entry way. He booms across the way, "It's chilly outside!" Baristas nod their heads while carefully pouring and roasting coffee while few customers grudgingly look up from their MACs - and then back to work they go.

It's currently 56 degrees in Southern California and that is pretty much as winter as it gets.  For me, it feels like Hawaii.

As some of you may have noticed from my Instagram feed, The Coffee Nomad has migrated from Chicago to the West Coast for the winter.   And to say I am thrilled is a bit of an understatement.

(Photos coming soon! Feel free to stay tuned via insta: @thecoffeenomad)

Now, there may be no snow storms to give reason for my constant coffee shop visits, but Southern Californians still need their coffee too.  I mean, we need something to get us through that awful traffic or up for early surf sessions.  We'll take the good with the bad any day.

I did a little research and stumbled upon Portola Coffee Lab in Costa Mesa.  Before I visited the shop a good friend and pastry chef (follow her on Instagram @butfirstpancakes) confirmed this place is kind of amazing.


You won't find it sitting in a stand-alone establishment, but rather a rustic-meets-modern indoor marketplace. You've got your cheeses, your sunglasses, boutique shops and a wine bar.  A girl can live here (I'll happily pay rent in the form of coffee and cheese… and wine.) Southern California was raised to feed inspiration. I credit the all-year round amazing weather.  I was born and raised in Newport Beach, California and every time I return to this beautiful part of the country, my heart is tugged in a million places. One of those places is right here at this shop in Costa Mesa.  This marketplace is called The Mix.

Today is a somewhat overcast day and the lighting in the building is still fantastic.  There is a mixture of fluorescents with natural lighting (thanks to the ceiling windows).  But before I get too involved with the structure itself… let's talk coffee!

Roast magazine named Portola Coffee Lab the 2015 Roaster of the Year, which is no little feat.  This is an international competition and once they were named a finalist, they were asked to provide three coffee blends.  They were tested on aroma, bean size, flavor and more according to their website

Ya'll (Portola Coffee people) were so kind.  I want to give a special shout out to Davin for taking a few moments with me and pointing me in Bryant's direction.

Bryant's passion for coffee began right here at Portola Coffee Lab. "Before Portola, I wasn't really into coffee," he explains.

A childhood friend had introduced him to the coffee lab and he immediately fell in love.

"I actually applied twice to be a barista here," he laughs.  You can usually find him in the "Theorem" bar - a concept bar that is attached to the side of the coffee lab.  We'll get to Theorum in a bit.

One of the reasons Portola tastes so fresh is because they roast their beans right in the lab. Pull up a seat to their tiled counter (with outlets!) and feel free to watch the process.   You can find their roaster in the midst of it all with their Apple MAC set up with graphs and the head roaster keeping a careful eye on the precious beans.


These beans come from a variety of countries.  Currently, according to Bryant, their two in-season blends are: MUTHUNJO (a new, Kenyan Coffee) and COCHERE (an Ethiopian Coffee).

The more reserved speaking Bryant takes a seat back as the coffee expert unfolds in front of me and begins speaking in a sophisticated tongue, "the Cochere is more of a tea-like, a very berry-forward type of blend while the Kenyan Coffee is more acidity, citrus like taste with berry undertones."

One day I, too, will be fluent in coffee.  But for now, I simply take his word and nod my head.

He begins to tell me about the owner and how he was a chemistry major before entering the coffee realm (Note to chemistry lovers; you should consider getting into coffee.  The entire process is a very exact, scientific process).   This owner of Portola Coffee lab, like some specialty coffee shops, visits coffee farms around the world to carefully select his beans.  Beyond that, he will work alongside farmers to produce the quality coffee.  As I mentioned in my Intelligentsia post, this direct trade relationship helps farmers become more of an artisan with their craft rather than a large-scale harvester.  The result is not just great coffee but a better means of living for farmers and their communities. Now, back to the Theorum Lab.

It is one of the coolest coffee bars I've ever pulled my chair up to. This simple concept of ordering coffee and staying a while to chat with the coffee artisan, creates an intimate experience with your drink.

Let me explain:

Think of it as a bar, but instead of an elderly, gray-bearded barkeep with a grungy towel over his left shoulder, you are facing a flannelled young man with a bowtie and scruffy facial hair.  And while they both shed advice to a barstool audience, the red-haired barista's remedy is coffee, not whiskey.

And what is really neat about this coffee bar is that they rotate menus and signature drinks.

Currently, their signature drinks are cocktail inspired.  And let me tell you - they are pretty darn good.

The bow-tied barista, also hails to the name, Tohm (@tohmifergan), fixed me a Coffee Mule that - you guessed it - is inspired by the Moscow Mule. It consisted of Kyoto, a Japanese Iced Coffee (a strong one I may add), lime juice, ginger beer.  In select hours you are free to pull up a chair at the black bar and enjoy special signature blends.  They change every month and really bring yet, another level of exclusivity to the specialty coffee bar.

"We feel this special space is for creativity and more interaction than the main coffee space.  It makes everyday coffee more intimate," says Tohm.

He adds that, however, should you need something a little stronger than caffeine there is the Gastropub across the way with craft beers and a full service bar.

Tohm is also a musican  - a drummer for the band From Indian Lakes to be exact.  He finds coffee to be his main muse.

"Being a musician means I can't always be here. Working here is pretty flexible and it is very generous for people to help me realize my dream."

But for Bryant, Portola Lab sits apart from others because of the fluid market place environment. "It allows for new relationships to form.  It's all open air and there is plenty of seats for people to sit but still be within the same area [of the coffee bar]."

And this week their theme is Harry Potter theme.  So the Theorum bar will have a Butter Beer coffee drink, with butterscotch and espresso and other complimenting and tasty ingredients.


Incredible coffee - no matter what you order Good service Great atmosphere to hang out or get work done Wifi could use a larger bandwidth

I guarantee you will be visiting here time and time again, just like me :)

Until next time!

Mugs Up,

The Coffee Nomad