“You’re standing in line to watch a film about drinking coffee?” the lady asked. She had been walking up and down the line that had formed outside of the Castro Theater in San Francisco asking for money and by the time she got to my friend and me, she realized what we were all standing in line to watch.
“It’s, um, about growing coffee too…” I said, my voice trailing off as I glanced downward.
“You buy a bag of beans, grind it, then make coffee!” and with that, she continued to walk down the line to continue her quest for some money. She neglected to even ask us for any change.
When she put it like that, fine, yes it did sound funny that my friend and I were in line to watch a film about coffee called… A Film About Coffee. But I love coffee and despite not being part of the coffee industry, I am always interested in learning more about where the coffee I drink comes from.
The film, directed by Brandon Loper is meant to be a “love letter” to specialty coffee and it really is a great homage to this industry, which is now responsible for 25% of the coffee consumption in the United States.
From the website:
A Film About Coffee follows the production of coffee from farms in Honduras and harvests in Rwanda to its global consumption. Listening to farmers, buyers, roasters and baristas about the crop’s economic and environmental implications both locally and abroad, the narrative travels to coffee shops in Tokyo, Portland, Seattle, San Francisco and New York, with stops in between. Dropping in on artisanal cafes to investigate how each prepares its own unique cup, the film opens a window into the little-understood world of speciality coffee.
After watching the film, I have to say that I really liked it even though I had no idea what to expect from watching something that was just about coffee. It’s beautifully shot and celebrates not only cafe culture, but really delves into what goes into specially coffee in the first place, giving me a lot more appreciation of the coffee that I drink as the coffee I purchase and the cafes that I frequent tend to use direct trade coffee, the kind of coffee highlighted in the film. This means that the roastery has a direct relationship with the farmers who grow the coffee. This enables the farmer to earn more than if they worked to provide coffee for a company in which coffee is more like a commodity (like with Folgers for example).
Part of the film takes place in Rwanda where the director films a visit from Stumptown Coffee’s Green Buyer Darrin Daniel as he met with the farmers at the Rwanda Trading Company, who supply coffee directly to Stumptown. There, we see the large number of people involved with harvesting the coffee cherries and how it goes from being picked to being shipped. There are a lot more steps involved than I would’ve thought and while the person roasting the beans and the barista in your favorite cafe who pull the shots play a part in how your coffee will taste, it’s the people who are on the farm who are largely responsible for preserving the quality of the coffee. As Darrin Daniel mentioned in the film, there’s no step in the process where quality is added to the bean. Therefore, it’s mostly up to the farmers to ensure that the the complex flavors found in the beans stay intact through the many steps the beans undergo on the farm to the time the beans reach the shores of the roastery in the States.
David Mancia, a farmer in Honduras was also highlighted in the film. His operation is on a much smaller scale than the one in Rwanda but he is still able to focus on the quality of his beans and with direct relationships to roasters, his coffee is sold in the United States.
I did like the film but it was during the shots over in Honduras when I figured out what was bothering me slightly about A Film About Coffee. There was one scene in which a barista from a roastery local to the Bay Area made coffee and espresso for Mancia and other farmers. The viewer is told that these farmers have never actually ever tasted espresso made from their own beans. We watched them take small sips and smile and nod to each other. The barista took a sip himself and said “Now that’s good coffee.” Then the film went over to Mancia who said he knew that. That was kind of hilarious to me as it was at that point when I realized that some of the film came off a bit as depicting the roasteries as playing the part of the savior to the people in these countries. I doubt that was the intention, but I still felt that way nonetheless. That may very well be just my take on it though and that shouldn’t dissuade anyone with even a bit of interest in coffee to watch this film as I definitely recommend A Film About Coffee.
In the end, while it may seem strange for me to devote an entire evening to pay money to watch a documentary about coffee in the historic Castro Theater, I thought it was well worth it. The free coffee they were giving out beforehand didn’t hurt either.
A Film About Coffee currently has screenings scheduled in different parts of the country and, according to the director after the San Francisco screening, the film will be made available on DVD in the future.
Further Reading: Check out my blog post on two books about coffee, including the one written by Blue Bottle founder James Freeman, who was also in the film and took part in the Q&A after the screening.