SAN LEANDRO, Calif. — A perfectly prepared cup of coffee in the morning is hard to beat, but most people don’t sit back to consider the people who are behind making that cup of coffee as good as it is.
Traveling to 15 locations including India, Ethiopia, the U.S. and Guatemala, Indian director Vishal Solanki, 32, and Vietnamese American director Hanh Nguyen, 28, don’t just go into how to prepare a perfect cup of coffee, but also who is behind that cup in their new, beautifully photographed documentary “Caffeinated.”
“In India, we have more of an instant coffee background,” Solanki told India-West. “Initially, it was just the attraction of let’s see what this is about.”
Going into the production process and showing every aspect of the supply chain, which includes the growers, pickers, tasters, baristas, roasters, customers, coffee machine makers and everyone in between, Solanki and Nguyen highlight the differences and similarities in growing, roasting and preparing coffee across countries and coffee houses.
“Coffee beans represent not more than 50 percent of the final result,” says Moreno Faina, head of Universita Del Caffe, in the film. “Fifty percent is given by the beans, by the quality, by the mixing, by the roasting, by all the other technical things. But the other 50 percent is given by the tools, the equipment, the machine, the grinders and the hand of the barista.”
Yet, what is meant by the perfect cup of coffee varies from culture to culture, the film shows, comparing the differences in coffee drinking cultures and rituals across countries with a particular focus on the reemergence of coffee drinking as a culinary experience.
In Italy, people are in and out of coffee bars, where they can stop by momentarily to experience the perfect shot of espresso, while in Ethiopia, the female head of the household prepares the brew for her family and friends in a special ceremony.
Americans took the espresso drink of Italy and put their own spin on it, creating a completely unique American experience.
While most other food service is heading towards increased automation, coffee shops are investing more into the skills of their baristas, ensuring they know how to brew the perfect cup of coffee with their own signature flair.
The film also addresses the social inequalities created and recreated by the West’s seemingly endless thirst for coffee and the different attempts that are being made to address them.
“When we ourselves realized how much coffee travels from where it grows to where it’s consumed — the irony of it is that a lot of the consuming countries are clueless as to what that journey is,” Solanki explained to India-West. “Once you understand that whole circle and see how many hands have to really touch it, it’s almost an eye-opener for almost any food we consume.”
In Central America, farmers have to put up their land for collateral because the government doesn’t subsidize their crops as the U.S. does with its farmers. Guatemala also exports all of its quality coffee beans, while only the coffee beans that weren’t good enough to be exported are sent to local markets.
As a counterpoint to this, the filmmakers point to The Cup of Excellence, a competition started to incentivize growing better quality beans. But in the film Geoff Watts, a green coffee buyer, explains how experimenting with different agricultural practices is impractical for many coffee growers because it’s an investment of several years and many growers don’t have enough to sell to make the venture profitable.
Ultimately, the message is that it is up to the consumer to vote with their dollars — that is, to buy coffee from ethical distributors. If better conditions aren’t created for agricultural workers, nobody will be left to work the coffee farms of tomorrow, the film says.
The filmmakers described how they acquired funding as they were going along, partially funding the film themselves. The support of family and friends was also indispensable, they said.
Nguyen stressed, “It was really just a labor of love and I don’t think we both knew what we got ourselves into five years ago.”
The documentary is releasing nationwide July 14 in select theaters, across various digital platforms, including iTunes and Amazon, and through major cable providers.