A few weeks back, I finally got to see “A Film About Coffee.” I loved it, so much so that I forced family members to watch it over the holidays.
The film captures well the specialty coffee movement, and with beautiful cinematography to boot.
So I recently chatted with the director of the film, Brandon Loper, about what inspired him to do it, what he thinks is next for the coffee industry, and how he chose which coffee companies to feature.
Here is an edited transcript of our discussion:
What made you want to do this film?
It’s probably a combination of a lot of things. I definitely saw a need for some more information and a way to educate people on specialty coffee.
I had done a short film on this guy who put a piano on a bicycle. It’s called Unwieldy Beast. It’s short. But that was what really gave me the motivation.
I’ve had the idea to make the move about coffee for a long time. I got into coffee myself, and I watched Black Gold. I watched everything you can find on coffee and it was either heavy social justice, or very historical, Ken Burns style.
It’s such a hard topic to tackle.
Why is that?
You have to have a point of view. That’s especially true with documentary filmmaking. With coffee it’s a fine line between just making a movie on specialty coffee or coffee that elevates specialty coffee that says this should be a standard.
Everyone around the world — there’s billions of coffee drinkers. But they might not understand the specialty market. What I wanted to do is make it approachable.
I just [showed the film to extended family members]. It’s kind of amazing showing people and them having no idea. They had no idea coffee was a fruit. I think that’s true for a lot of people. I wanted it to be approachable and smart enough on an educational level.
That was the tricky thing, making the distinction between specialty and normal coffee.
I was struck by the connections you feel with the farmers, and the people actually picking the coffee. And amazed that one coffee plant makes only one pound of coffee a year. Or that nine people are involved before the coffee gets exported.
It was very intentional. For me, when I was there filming that, that was the first time I had seen that whole process.
What I really tried to capture was, you see something, you’re experiencing it. I tried to put those emotions I was feeling into the movie. When Kevin Bohlin, from Ritual, made espresso for the farmers, I love that scene so much. You see the reaction of people trying something for the first time. We let that scene go long and there was no music.
To me, one of the most powerful scenes was the transition from Rwanda, with the guys in the blue overalls packing up the beans. And then it transitions to Portland, Ore., with the guy in the hoodie getting ready to roast them. It really shows you how many hands are involved.
Thank you. Initially my plan was to film more steps of that. Of the coffee being loaded onto the shipping truck and being shipped. But in the end, we felt it’s more powerful to cut from one person to the next. Then you really get it.
How did you decide who to feature in the film? I noticed you featured almost all of the big names in third wave coffee – Stumptown, Counter Culture, Blue Bottle. But not Intelligentsia. Is there any reason you didn’t have them in there?
I think that’s something looking back on I might have spent more time researching. One of the things I regret not including is Intelligentsia. They are an important part of the story. This was done as a side project. I do commercials for a living. I had to figure out a way to make this work. My producer and I have to figure out how we could get to places for the cheapest amount of money.
We got extremely lucky in Boston in 2013 at the US Barista competition. That’s when we interviewed Katie Carguilo, George Howell, and Peter Giuliano. Those are three anchors of the film. When I think about that I think I just got so lucky they would give us a few minutes.
Stumptown was always on my list. I really liked what they were doing and what I’d read. Our office is in the Mission in San Francisco. We’re a few blocks from Four Barrel Coffee.
We did Boston and New York together. We drove down to LA. I bought an 84 Volkswagen van when we started the movie. We drove a lot of places.
Have you heard from Intelligensia?
They’re into it. They just wished they were in it.
What surprised you during the making of the film? Was there anything you found shocking?
I wouldn’t say shocking but something that still blows me away is when they’re hand picking the cherries, they don’t ripen at the same time. There’s one cherry out of 25. The fact that they’re having to go back and pick these same trees and be careful while they do it, it blows me away. When you’re cleaning something or doing a task, you want to do it all at once. But here you’re going back and back and back to the same tree.
I was pretty blown away and mesmerized by meeting Daibo, the coffee master in Japan. We kind of put it in the movie as another one of those things. But it was this really epic kind of moment. A lot of people thought maybe it’s a guy just making coffee. But it really blew me away. It’s a whole different level. It’s very Japanese. You might not want to have that experience every day, especially your first cup of coffee. But it’s so unique to see.
And then you see, after all that work, how little coffee there is in the cup.
We struggled for a while getting that scene to really land. It wasn’t until we had James Freeman from Blue Bottle talking about it, sort of narrating, that it really worked.
What’s next for the coffee industry do you think?
I saw probably 150 commercials for Chick-fil-A’s specialty coffee. The whole thing they’re pitching on national TV is direct trade coffee. Their whole thing is coffee with a story. To me, it’s really smart. You’re going to see a lot of companies doing it.
It’s basically Chick-fil-A saying, “Hey we now buy coffee directly.” When I’m eating my chicken sandwich there’s a picture of a farmer on my tray. That wouldn’t have happened five years ago. Everyone is realizing that the general public sort of appreciates where things come from. When you can put a story and a face to something people appreciate it more.
What’s driving the movement toward specialty coffee do you think?
I’m 31. I would say people that were born in the ’80s and younger, people are starting to appreciate something different and something they can latch onto that feels like they’re doing something good. That they’re a part of something bigger than themselves. I think that’s a part of it, what’s driving the movement to speciality coffee.
One of the first things you’re going to hear is a pour-over or a drip, you’ll hear someone talk about that, and you’ll hear someone talk about the farmer. Or where the coffee comes from.
People want to know where their food comes from. People are shopping at farmers’ markets. They want to know if their eggs are pasteurized.
If someone is going to open a café there’s a better chance now it’s going to be good.
Watch the film’s trailer:
Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.