“Caffeinated” tells the story of coffee through the perspectives of people who have dedicated their lives to it. At every step of the process, it’s the hands that planted the seed, that roasted the beans, that crafted the drink that makes every cup of coffee a story worth telling.
From the rugged deep country of Guatemala and the rolling hills of India to the specialty coffee bars dotting urban neighborhoods around the world, “Caffeinated” traces the process of producing one of humanity’s favorite beverages. Along the way, we learn a few interesting facts, and the filmmakers touch on some of the struggles farmers in poor countries face. Most of all, however, this film is a love letter to coffee in all its subtle variations. We listen to one expert after another talk about the epiphany of a perfectly blended sip of java. Even actor Danny Glover gets in on the conversation.
The film’s topic is ready made for a wide audience, presented well with a slick, professional sheen rising to true beauty as it documents the mountainous terrain coffee sprouts from. But it takes an almost elitist attitude into its deconstruction of the industry it examines. As I watched, I was both fascinated and put off by the industry jargon and focus on specialty coffees that seemed incongruous with the documentary’s final 20 minutes, where it examines how small farmers, especially women farmers, struggle to make ends meet in this business. Actor Danny Glover is the only non-insider present and seems to be there simply because he’s a famous man who loves specialty coffee. I understand the two directors’ (Hanh Nguyen, Vishal Solanki) desire to include him, but, given the large number of specialty coffee bars they obviously visited, interviewing a few everyday patrons would have made their overall points far more effective.
In its opening stages, “Caffeinated” introduces some big ideas that it never really explores. As it discusses coffee’s origin in Ethiopia, Colonialism, and the struggles of modern agriculture, it simply skips over these ideas and jumps into the process, saving a smidgeon of activism for later. It works best as an analysis of how coffee has evolved from plain old coffee from a can to the many varieties we see in coffee bars and grocery stores today.
If you are a true coffee enthusiast, this film will thrill you. It pulls the audience in by showing how coffee transcends beverage to become something more affirming and exhilarating. The details of flavor, color, boldness, etc., can alter the experience of each cup, making a great morning even better or ruining it. Nguyen and Solanki deliver the “story” through the opinions of those inside the industry: the farmers, roasters, buyers, tasters, baristas, and others. This technique works well and gives the film a richer feel than a step by step presentation would have. No step in the process is laid out in simple terms so much as each step flows through the ideas and opinions each person gives us. These “conversations” remain the film’s biggest asset, along with the many individuals who joyfully detail their love of coffee and their coffee related jobs.
The back breaking nature of growing and harvesting coffee gets lots of attention, but only as part of the process. Absent is any meaningful discussion of specific ways pickers can be helped monetarily or in case of injury. In fact, while the filmmakers acknowledge that many pickers and other workers make their entire subsistence on the farms they work, they completely ignore issues such as injury and what happens when a picker can no longer pick.
Beyond these oversights, the rest of the process remains fascinating. We get a look at the delicate job of roasting beans and how much it relies on instinct and gut feeling, paying close attention to the various signs of the perfectly roasted coffee bean. The film focuses on tasting as an art, if only for a few moments. Over and over, the men and women interviewed speak about the delicate nature of each step, from growing the coffee to how a barista prepares and presents a cup of coffee to each customer. These essential steps reminded me of my time touring the vineyards in Napa Valley with my wife a few years back. The similarities in producing wine and coffee are inescapable, as are the similarities in judging their worth.
In the final third, we see some success at creating more opportunity for small farmers as the film looks at The Cup of Excellence competition in Brazil and Las Hermanas cooperative in Nicaragua. These show a glimpse of what can be done when corporations work to find mutually beneficial solutions, ensuring small farmers who produce quality beans retain a share of the market and keeping those quality beans in production. Unfortunately, these are only two successful examples among many unsuccessful ones. Even these successful farmers at times live in conditions we would find deplorable.
“Caffeinated” stuns visually, making full use of the gorgeous mountain terrain where coffee farms are found. The landscapes contrast scenes inside the roasting kilns and other corporate related locations, but each coffee bar chosen has the flair of tradition and character to accent its unique atmosphere. Nguyen and Christopher Roth edit seamlessly, giving the film a conversational tone that lends itself well to the idea of sitting in a coffee bar with friends talking about coffee. Derek Baird’s score supports this atmosphere ably.
Overall, “Caffeinated” works. I wanted a deeper examination of the issues surrounding coffee production to give it more weight, but it remains a fascinating look at coffee for those aficionados who haven’t looked this closely before.
In select theaters and iTunes, Amazon, Googleplay, Xbox, Vudu and all major cable providers including Time Warner, Comcast, Directv and more July 14th