For anyone craving the freshest cup of coffee in Orange County, Sootha Coffee, a small batch coffee roaster in Irvine, should not be overlooked.
Located in the Northwood Town Center, Sootha Coffee is a small, family-run outfit, featuring a rotation of all organic, specialty beans from different regions like Bali, Columbia and Tanzania.
In some respects, Sootha Coffee is a coffee aficionado’s dream, executing the entire roasting and packaging process in-house.
U Kim, a former Marine and the owner of Sootha Coffee, said his focus since opening Sootha’s doors in 2012 was to sell the freshest, most organic, Fair Trade coffee beans possible — as long as he enjoyed the taste.
Kim loves coffee, and spends his time roasting high-quality coffee beans in line with his palette’s preferences. From Kim’s perspective, Sootha is simply a conduit for him to support his love affair with coffee, while simultaneously sharing that passion with the community.
“We’re just a neighborhood coffee shop. This is the only location,” Kim said in an interview with Irvine Weekly. “We are nowhere near sustainable level, as far as our revenue is concerned, but there has been some help in terms of loans and grants from the city of Irvine.”
Kim’s process begins with selective bean sourcing, then moves to roasting small batches with a tiny, lab-sized roaster. Kim uses an in-house cupping method to taste all his brews, then, if the roast is right, it can be packaged. This is all accomplished behind the counter inside the Irvine-based coffee shop.
Perhaps the unique, and important, quality of Sootha Coffee is the years Kim spent researching, experimenting and learning how to acquire the equipment and skills needed to perfect this method of roasting small batch coffee.
The art of roasting coffee is a tedious, delicate process that requires precision and scientific knowledge of heat and weight distribution, not to mention requires very specific machinery to accomplish properly.
In fact, the Santa Ana-based Speciality Coffee Association estimates coffee can lose its freshness just 10 days after being roasted. While the SCA estimation does not suggest that coffee needs to be discarded after the 10-day mark, it serves as more of a “best-by” date.
For context, when a bag of coffee beans is purchased at a grocery store, those beans have already been roasted, giving them a brown, dark tint. However, prior to roasting, coffee beans are actually green.
Kim selects organic, “green” coffee, then roasts, packages and brews their selected beans on the daily — something even the corporate giants neglect to offer at most coffee shops.
Kim and his family have owned and operated Sootha Coffee for almost a decade. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Kim said he was roasting approximately 650 pounds of beans per month, which breaks down to about 25 pounds daily.
Considering Kim’s small, modified lab roaster can only fit about five pounds of beans at a time, Kim’s love for roasting coffee has become his full-time job.
While the pandemic has created many challenges for Kim and his family’s business, he uses his passion for the art of coffee as motivation to serve the community. Prior to the pandemic, Kim would host barista classes at his Irvine-based coffee shop.
“I’m just trying to do my best to stay in business,” he said. “If we take precautions and do the right thing, and save one life, I think it’s worth it.”
For Kim, a slender, soft-spoken Korean man, who can likely be found lightly tapping the bottom of his silver frothing pitcher to gauge the temperature and readiness of milk while steaming it, said the two most important things are community — and coffee.
“Right off the bat, we wanted to be organic, partly something to differentiate ourselves. To me, a coffee shop should be a place to make community. About three-quarters of customers are regulars. I address them by their first names as they come in, and often know their drinking habits,” he added. “People have been so kind, even as far as paying it forward and buying gift cards. We’re just blown away by this kindness.”
Kim said he came to Irvine as a Marine when he was younger, and Irvine has been his on-again, off-again home for many years, also living in Long Beach and overseas for a time.
With a professional background in engineering, Kim added that becoming Irvine’s most organic coffee roaster was not exactly in the mission plan.
“This is not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, but it’s a part of me. And because I care about the coffee I drink, maybe I can find the clientele that would like something better — like Columbian coffee,” he said. “Roasting coffee to me is like cooking food. People have been cooking coffee for thousands of years — it should not be rocket science.”
The on-going COVID-19 pandemic has created a future of uncertainty for many businesses in Irvine, including Kim and Sootha Coffee. Unfortunately, Kim has experience with these situations of uncertainty, pointing to the financial crisis of 2008.
“We lost our home because of the 2008 fiasco, and we’ve been through the ringer,” he said.
Still, Kim leans into his love for community and coffee to remain optimistic.
“Although I should feel more intimidated by the situation, somehow I think I have a coping mechanism — believe it or not,” he said. “My attitude is, this will pass and we’ll come through, but it may take some doing to recover.”
Sootha Coffee is located at 4840 Irvine Blvd #111, Irvine, CA 92620, in the Northwood Town Center. Open 7-days a week.