Haley Littleton and Brandon Loper, the Director of the first full-length documentary on the production and consumption of free trade coffee, had a chat about their favorite drink.
Haley: The title is short and to the point. Brandon Loper’s documentary is exactly what it sounds like: a documentary about the production, creation, and preparation of specialized coffee. But the film is much more than the ubiquitous title describes. Since it is one of the first films produced about the rise of specialty and direct trade coffee, perhaps it is worthy of such a simplistic title. With “specialty coffee,” the film explores coffee roasters, such as Stumptown and Blue Bottle, who are focusing on high quality direct trade beans and using “slow” brewing processes, like the the syphon, pour over, Chemex and Aeropress.
Director at Avocados & Coconuts, Loper admits that he usually works on commercials, but he didn’t want the the film to be a commercial about the coffee industry. His main interest in the film is the interaction between coffee lovers and and coffee itself: “No matter the quality of your cup, people who love coffee, love it. Coffee is about people, and people are what I’m interested in ultimately.”
Those of us who love coffee have our own fond memories of it. Personally, coffee makes me nostalgic for my childhood, remembering the smell of my father’s coffee drifting throughout the house, signifying the morning before the sun did.
Brandon: A Film About Coffee is a love letter to, and meditation on, specialty coffee. It examines what it takes, and what it means, for coffee to be defined as ‘specialty.’ Through the eyes and experiences of farmers and baristas, the film offers a unique overview of all the elements—the processes, preferences and preparations; traditions old and new—that come together to create the best cups. This is a film that bridges gaps both intellectual and geographical, evoking flavor and pleasure, and providing both as well.
The idea for the film came when I was introduced to specialty coffee. I was having this “coffee journey” that I had a hard time explaining to most people. I’m from Alabama, and I was used to drinking Folgers with Hazelnut creamer (it’s important to remember where we’ve come from… ha!). I only started drinking coffee in college to impress a girl. It worked; we now have been married for almost 8 years and have an adorable little 15-month-old girl, Eleanor Olive.
Haley: Being well acquainted with Alabama (not to mention, I started drinking black coffee to impress a guy, but that is neither here nor there). I can relate to Loper on a few points: mainly the lack of knowledge of coffee as an agricultural product. Like any other fruit, there are enormous variations. The need for the documentary arises from the myth that the production of coffee is quick, easy and always accessible.
Loper’s conception of coffee shifted when he began to explore some of the better-known specialty coffee roasters, specifically Blue Bottle after moving to San Francisco. Brandon recounts how five years ago, he had a coffee at Blue Bottle called Misty Valley from Ethiopia and the blueberry flavor was off the charts. This spurred on his dedication to understanding the varieties and complexities of coffee and, consequently the production of the film, now two years in.
Brandon: When we moved to San Francisco, I was pretty excited and enthralled about all of the new opportunities at hand. San Francisco kept me energized and constantly pursuing something better, I found. It was the same way with my discovery of coffee. It’s a little embarrassing, but here are the beginning sketches for the movie, which started as a very informal blog I used to document my coffee experiences.
Haley: The film follows the development of direct trade coffee from its creation, in Rwanda and Honduras, to its preparation in coffee hot spots like Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and Tokyo. One of Loper’s favorite things about making the film were the site visits. He recounts filming in Honduras
Brandon: When you find yourself in Peña Blanca, Honduras with four coffee professionals a few things are guaranteed: You will most definitely eat baleadas (wheat flour tortillas with mashed fried beans) every morning. And they will be up and stirring before you, ready to hand you a cup of coffee brewed with their simple, yet very functional travel coffee setup.
Brandon: This trip originated out of a conversation in the lovely balcony at Sightglass coffee with Kevin Bohlin formerly of Ritual Coffee Roasters , now with his new coffee company, St. Frank Coffee. Kevin told me how he was going to brew coffee for a farmer at his house and then make espresso drinks for several farmers in the area and let them taste their coffee roasted and prepared in a more delicate way. Sold. The results were so good that you’re going to have to wait for the film to see what happened.
Haley: The aesthetics of the film are merit-worthy: camera angles catching the subtle drips of a syphon machine or helicoptering over the lush, green fields of Rwanda. But the film is also laden with hints of ecology, human rights, and an understanding of fair trade, containing valuable information aimed at reorienting the way we view coffee. For such a niche industry, many are apt to leave the “specialty coffee” industry to the handlebar mustached hipsters that it attracts. But the agricultural and gastronomical aspects of the industry are intended for everyone. The film works directly to combat our agricultural ignorance of the coffee crop.
Brandon: When you take on a subject like coffee, you could focus in on a number of different topics, whether it’s chemical reactions, the history, the beauty, the taste, or the terrible injustice present in cultivation. One thing that I really wanted to include in this film is the harvest. The green buyer is a key difference in the quality of coffee that you are drinking right now. They are there on the ground with the farmers and at the wet mills cupping the coffee, deciding what tastes best for your morning cup. When your at home getting ready to grind that fresh cup, pour a little out for your green buyer.
Haley: The film follows coffee producers at the Rwanda Trading Company through the complex and meticulous process: harvesting, washing, shelling and drying the berries through a multiple step process. This process must be carefully detailed; one slight change in any part of the process can drastically change the taste and quality of the berry.
Haley: The economics presented in the film may push people over the edge to buy specialty and direct trade coffees. I asked Loper why specialty coffee and direct trade coffee were gaining so much cultural traction.
Brandon: First, flavor: coffees that are classified as specialty coffee are picked, processed, roasted and brewed better than a commodity grade (cheaper, mainline brands) coffee. All those things make it taste better. Second: coffee has a huge social impact on a large number of people located near the equator.
Haley: People, first, come to see that specialty coffee actually tastes better than cheaper coffee. Then the consumer comes to see that spending a bit more on a bag of coffee not only has an effect in quality, but in fairness, as well. When asked how direct trade coffee benefits producers and farmers, rather than subsidized, industrial crop, Loper responds that it’s all about cost per pound in specialty versus commodity and the fair balance of wages.
Brandon: Specialty coffee can go for $3-5 dollars a pound versus a commodity grade coffee going for about $1.5-3 dollars a pound. While in Honduras, I heard story after story about how this farmer sold to the commodity market last year, and this year he separated his lot, moving towards the specialty market, and got 3 times as much money. So it’s partly an education thing, having a great mill in your town that will support farmers who want to start separating is really invaluable.
Haley: Farmers are actually getting paid the fair market value of the coffee that they are creating. Moving towards direct trade and single origin coffee isn’t about “hipster” pretension, but creating high quality coffee and mutually beneficial agrarian partnerships. Specialty and single origin coffees cost more, but one can be fairly certain that the producer is benefiting from the transaction fairly. It seems to be a win-win: higher quality coffee that provides fair wages to those who produce it. The only hurdle left is our cultural mindset that wants things quick and cheap. Specialty coffee, on the other hand, is slow and interested in market place partnerships.
Haley: Many of us have emotional reasons that connect us to a brimming, dark cup of caffeinated glory, and, for Loper, the human aspect of coffee is the force of the film. While it may take twenty minutes for the perfect Chemex to brew, those twenty minutes are about stimulating conversation, cultivating community, and remembering that good things come to those who wait.
Brandon: I really want people to walk away with a lasting feeling that there are people behind each cup of coffee that they drink. I believe thinking about others as the first thing you do in the morning is a special way to live your life, and you can do that while enjoying your morning cup of coffee.
Haley: Loper and Avocado and Conconuts are still working through the process of promoting the film.
Brandon: We are currently planning our tour. It’s kind of like being in a band, we have gotten over a hundred location requests and we are working to fulfill whilst making the physical and digital copies of the film for people to purchase. We are distributing independently, which is really fun, but it’s a lot of work.
For now, the Portland premiere will be on May 29 at Laurelhurst Theatre and the San Francisco premiere will be June 3 at Castro Theatre. Those who don’t live in Portland or San Francisco can request a screening in their town. You can also sign up for A Film About Coffee’s newsletter to learn when the movie will be available for purchase.