Documentary Review: ‘Caffeinated’

Greetings again from the darkness. Who better to review a documentary about coffee than someone who has never had a sip of the stuff and who becomes nauseous at the waffling aroma of java in a breakfast diner? For whatever reason, coffee and I have been lifelong enemies, and that makes my appreciation and respect of this documentary that much more surprising. Co-directors Hanh Nguyen and Vishal Solanki provide an interesting and in-depth look at the amazingly complex process that begins with planting seeds, and ends with Starbucks convincing some addict that $6 is reasonable for a morning jolt.

As you are probably aware, coffee is truly an international product with various cultures creating their own customs and flavors. What you might not know is that coffee is best grown in a small tropical longitudinal band and at 4000 to 6000 feet elevation. There are many local farmers in these areas who lovingly work their small plots of land in hopes that the price will allow them to feed their family and pay the current debts. These farms are often mortgaged by this year’s crop or even by the land itself. It’s no shock that the big profits are realized further up the pyramid and not by these farmers who cultivate the plants and pick the cherries.

The film does a terrific job at introducing us to those at each step of the long process. We meet farmers and pickers, roasters, distributors and of course, baristas … the rock stars of the coffee world. We even meet a “World Barista Champ”. Yes, there are competitions … just like for chefs and winemakers. In fact, the laborious and complex process of getting coffee to the cup is not all that dissimilar to the process of going from grape to wine glass. Of course the steps are different, but the intricacies and the importance of equipment and skill align pretty well.

Erna Knudsen and Alfred Peet are two of the coffee legends mentioned, and it’s interesting to hear about the elevation of coffee status from a cheap “fast food” product of the 1980’s and 1990’s to the specialty drink of the new millennium, with an emphasis on innovation and style (and trend).

Coffee lovers should have some concern as we learn about the reticence of youngsters to join in the family coffee farming business, after years of seeing how their elders have struggled … not exactly setting the stage for a preferred career path. The detail presented here is impressive and well-researched, and it’s fascinating to see the impact of coffee on so many different countries from around the globe. The film gives you plenty to consider as you sip your next cup of Jitter Juice.

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