There’s a Starbucks on every other corner in America selling coffee drinks that bear a closer resemblance to soda fountain beverages than to a good cuppa Joe. But here in town at Laguna Coffee Company we have the real deal, where coffee beans are actually roasted on site and serving a great cup of coffee is the passion of owner Paul Ackley.
Paul and his wife, Cathy, are longtime residents of Laguna Beach, and he is also the owner of a successful medical-instruments company in Santa Ana. However, he has always been crazy about coffee, and it is always a pleasure to talk with someone about what they truly love. Not many people have the courage, energy or means to turn their passion into a business.
Paul warmly welcomed us into his shop, and with the enthusiasm of a young kid said, “Would you like to see me roast the beans?" He selected a small batch of green Brazilian Santos beans and proudly displayed his expertise in the complexities of his roasting machine, which holds the honored spot in the center of the cafÃ©.
While the beans were roasting, he told us that he and his partners purchased Laguna Coffee two years ago from the previous owner, Sylvan Touati, who now works for him and who taught him the basics of the art of roasting coffee. Paul continues his coffee education by attending conferences and lectures and has studied with a PhD chemist.
We got just a taste of the intricacies and variables involved as we watched the roasting process. Blowers are adjusted to create the proper temperature, determined by the density of the bean, the moisture in the air, the altitude and other variables.
“Laguna is a good place for roasting coffee," Ackley says, “because the climate is dry." As the coffee roasts, cracking begins, releasing the sucrose and fructose in the bean, creating caramelization, which produces a sweet heady aroma. Beans cooled at this stage are called medium roast, his favorite.
A second cracking occurs as beans continue to roast making a darker, oilier coffee bean "” dark roast. The cooling process is equally tricky. Beans must be agitated so that they cool evenly and quickly so that they don’t continue to cook, over-roast and burn.
“I oversee the entire coffee creation. I source the beans. I buy the beans. I roast the beans," Ackley said. “I do it in small batches so that I can really watch the bean"¦no burnt or stale beans in my shop."
He purchases high-quality beans from all around the world. They are in large burlap bags "” all over the shop. Many people think they’re part of the dÃ©cor, but they are in fact the product that he roasts several times each week, making it the freshest coffee anywhere around. You can also find his coffee at Gelson’s.
Laguna Coffee carries dark roasts, varietals (a single coffee like Costa Rican or Ethiopian Harar) and blends. Their popular house blends include: “Laguna," a mix of Tanzanian Peaberry and Sumatra; and “Black Pearl," a secret blend that Ackley won’t divulge. A pound of coffee sells for about $12 except for premium roasts like Jamaica Blue Mountain, which goes for the hefty price of $55. There is also a monthly special at $10 a pound.
Their tea selection is Cathy’s realm, including whole leaf black, oolong, green, white and rooibos. The piÃ¨ce de rÃ©sistance is the white tea blossom. If you have never seen one of these unfold, as we had not, it is an astonishing and delightful experience. She put something that looked like a brown mushroom in a glass cup and poured hot water over it. Before our eyes it slowly began to unfurl, and a bright orange-petaled flower emerged; and, as if that were not enough, it also produced a delicious cup of tea.
If you are part of Laguna’s cafÃ© society and like to sit and sip, there is a small outdoor patio with a bit of an ocean view, a circular bench out front around a real coffee tree and a cozy shop with magazines, newspapers and exhibitions of local art. They have live jazz from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Saturdays. Smoothies, pastries and light fare are also served.
If you are as passionate about coffee as they are, sign up for their quarterly blind tastings called “cuppings."
For those of you who are befuddled by the barrage of terminology required to order a “cuppa," let us give you a few of the basics.
?Americano: espresso with hot water added to make it the strength of filter coffee;
?Cappuccino: 1/3 espresso, 1/3 steamed milk and 1/3 foam;
?CafÃ© crÃ¨me: espresso with added steamed milk served in a coffee cup;
?Crema: the nut-brown foamy layer on top of properly made espresso;
?Doppio: (meaning double) two shots of espresso in one cup;
?Latte: (meaning milk) an espresso with hot milk and a drizzle of foam ;
?Lungo: (meaning long) an espresso made with about double the usual amount of water, making it the weakest espresso drink, similar to Americano;
?Macchiato: (meaning marked or stained) espresso with a teaspoon of milky foam on top;
?Mocha: rich hot chocolate with a shot of espresso, hot milk and foam; and
?Ristretto: (meaning shortened) an espresso made with less water than usual.
These are the basics. Terms invented by Starbucks like Frappuccino and Venti are best left described by the overworked barista on the corner.
For a serious cup of really good coffee or a pound of the freshest beans, drop by the Laguna Coffee Company at 1050 S. Coast Hwy. between Anita and Oak streets any time between 6 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday; 6:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. Saturday and 7 a.m. and 3 p.m. Sundays. The phone number is (949) 494-6901.
ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ owned A La Carte for 20 years. They can be reached for comments or questions at email@example.com