Did you have your morning Joe today? Chances are you had a cup of coffee and will follow up with more coffee during the day. If you are inured to the energizing effects that occur at all hours from that wonderful, stirring caffeine, you will probably follow up with an espresso or maybe a cappuccino in the evening after dinner as I do. Regardless of time of day, I drink lattes and cappuccinos, and my friends joke that I “fiene” for coffee. They even gave me a plaque which says, “Hand her the coffee and no one will get hurt.” I’m one of the thousands who scoffed that coffee was “unhealthy” and partied when coffee was given the “all-clear” because of its life-promoting antioxidants. Indeed, there is much good news that coffee has tremendous health benefits. So when the documentary Caffeinated, directed by Hanh Nguyen and Vishal Solanki, came out I was curious about my beloved, favorite drink.
Through interviews with coffee researchers and experts who devote their lives to coffee, filmmakers relate the coffee of ancient times and investigate the current global product we enjoy today. Coffee beans were first cultivated on a shrub native to Ethiopia. Ethiopian coffee ceremonies were held by the woman as the head of the household. They roasted, ground, and brewed the coffee for family and friends and made the drink part of an enjoyable social event. The coffee ceremony encouraged interaction as a social convention to share gossip, news and ideas. It was a form of relaxation and bonding of community.
Since the drink was a stimulant and not a depressant that impaired one’s faculties, even children drank it. The custom was adopted and spread to Yemen and Arabia. Along trade routes the idea was disseminated where it eventually reached Europe. There it was enjoyed in coffee houses evoking the atmosphere where intellectual discussion took place over a coffee. Of course, colonialism increased its spread and popularity. The tradition has continued taking on its new innovations around the world still maintaining the idea of social interaction over cups of the stimulant at an espresso bar in Italy, a coffee house in Oz, various specialty cafes in Europe or at the ubiquitous, well known coffee venue, Starbucks.
Globally, coffee drinkers number in the multi-millions and over a billion cups of coffee are enjoyed each day. Though filmmakers are not handy with the numbers of coffee drinkers or total number of cafes, coffee houses, espresso bars, coffee bars, and coffee stands globally, which probably number in the billions, they do provide clips of interviews of key individuals in the global world of coffee agriculture, harvesting, bean selecting, drying, milling, roasting, tasting-promoting, entrepreneurship, coffee agronomy, and research.
Did you know that coffee is a fruit? Experts state that it is much like peaches or apricots or cherries which have a stone pit. There are two types of beans, Arabica and Robusta. Arabica is thought to be the finer species producing a richer coffee bean. Robusta grows to be as tall as a tree, up to 9 feet or more and is less aromatic, though sturdier and more bitter.
The way the coffee cherries are handled, the slope of the sun in the sky to produce the length of the ripening period are some of the initial variables which can impact the quality of the green coffee bean at the beginning stages of its development. This is much before harvest in which coffee cherries are hand picked. Then comes the selection process which goes through at least two phases. Then there is the drying process and the milling and other steps along the way to procure the best green coffee beans before they are readied for export. Who knew that from start to finish the cups of coffee we enjoy are produced from a very complicated and measured process which entrepreneurs are hoping to improve upon all along the supply chain.
Perhaps the most vital of the interviews Nguyen and Solanki include are the discussions with the farmers (large and small farms), on the lower end of the supply chain, who provide us with the delicious beans they have grown in areas like Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Sumatra. These countries have the ideal growing conditions and are along the band of terrain around the equator which provides pristine, remote, tropical, elevated regions where coffee cherries thrive. Many of the farmers are so busy cultivating and readying the coffee for export, they do not enjoy their own coffee and in these export countries, the best beans are sent to the global market, leaving the worst beans for sale in their own native countries. There is a movement to change this unfortunate fact of life. At the least, farmers and citizens should be able to enjoy the fruits of their own labor and the product which is the key component to prosperity in their countries.
Caffeinated reveals that the farmers are the lynchpin to great coffee and they are a dying breed since the children of those on family farms are loath to taking on the mantle of their parents in a career that does not provide current levels of prosperity in the West or improved lifestyles. All individuals who are a part of the process moving the coffee up the supply chain understand the importance of the farmers in producing the quality coffee beans.
Those interviewed discuss their relationship to coffee along the supply chain, and they indicate that they are concerned about this issue of the farmers’ plight and the necessity to produce sustainable, quality coffee beans. Without the farmers’ active passion, without the farmers’ prosperity (they need to make higher than a minimum wage as they take on the peculiar risks of growing excellent coffee beans while hazarding the long process from planting to export), the drink we take for granted is in a state of jeopardy. Although this is understated in the film and probably the film’s main flaw in tone because the documentarians wanted to use the velvet voice of activism, it cannot be emphasized enough. Coffee agriculture must be supported and though coffee entrepreneurs and advocates are taking steps to support fair trade coffee growers, sustainability and other supports for farmers (the Cup of Excellence program), certainly much more should be done.
Presenting this subtle theme, filmmakers interview master roasters like John Weaver of Wild Card Roasters and Henry Kalebjian, of House of Coffee. The master roasters (who knew you could be a master at this?), are extremely particular about how good the green coffee beans are and how they must be roasted as a culinary art in achieving the finest quality of specialty coffee. They use their senses like chefs, hearing the popping sound, smelling the roast and seeing the proper sheen and color, for example, on an espresso roast. Too long in at high temperatures to reduce the moisture and the roast burns the beans. Not enough moisture out of the beans and the aromatics and flavor are ruined. One or two seconds can throw off a coffee profile. When Kalebjian was learning from his father how to properly roast, he burned himself. It was then his father congratulated him because the “secret of a great roast went into his blood and he would never forget it.”
Along the supply chain Nguyen and Solanki interview the owners of smaller coffee companies like Peet’s Coffee and Tea and David Schomer of Espresso Vivace (preparing espresso properly is a culinary art), and officials of huge concerns like Starbucks, Illy and Nuova Simonelli. They also interview those who want to insure that quality coffee is found and enjoyed like Sunalini Menon from India (yes, there are parts of India that welcome coffee over tea). Menon is the founder of Coffee Lab. She is a coffee taster and gets to take coffee breaks all day. She tastes fine coffees, much the same way a wine sommelier samples fine wines. For example what is the fragrance and aroma of the dry coffee grounds? Is it floral or citrus-like? Adding water what is the smell and taste and mouth feel on the palate as the flavors and aromas combine with the heated water. Can one identify a floral, chocolate, apricot or banana flavor? Or is the acidity too strong? As a result of her tastings, she goes back to the farmers and makes suggestions to upgrade the coffee beans or promotes the fine coffees she tastes.
Filmmakers include comments by baristas who add their opinions about the techniques of making a beautiful cappuccino or the peace and happiness of brewing the perfect espresso. There are even comments by the award winning champion Barista of 2010.
The story of coffee as presented by the filmmakers with the lilting music by Derek Baird is a fascinating one. Looking at the foaming designs on the cappuccinos and hearing the passion and love of coffee expressed by both farmers and master roasters alike, I decided to indulge my fix for coffee after seeing Caffeinated which I heartily recommend if you enjoy coffee or even indulge in a Frappaccino now and then. Yes, it was stated that coffee is a drug, albeit a legal one. And Danny Glover, billed as activist and actor, extolled the pleasures of drinking morning coffee with family. At any time of day with friends and family or without, coffee is a pleasure. And as a fruit beverage, how addictive can it be?
Caffeinated is on iTunes, Amazon, googleplay, Xbox, vudu, and all major cable providers including Time Warner, Comcast, directv, and more.
[amazon template=iframe image&asin= 0142181803]