If you’ve ever wondered what goes into to your morning macchiato, Hanh Nguyen and Vishal Solanki’s latest is a must-watch. The young documentarians casted their net wide for Caffeinated, interviewing shop owners, baristas, and coffee connoisseurs, as well as the farm owners and distributors who are helping to bring high quality, small-batch coffee to customers around the world. The result is a film that’s informative, but also poignant and thoughtful in regards to the way we drink, interact, and forge community bonds around coffee rituals.
What does your morning ritual look like?
Hanh Nguyen: I start my morning with a cup of coffee using either my french press or a Chemex. Most of the time I work from home so it’s a routine that gets me excited.
Vishal Solanki: Mine is pretty weird. I am a workaholic and sleep very little, so I generally wake up around 6 or 7, rush to my grinder to grind the beans and put them in the brewing machine and add water. I turn on the machine and run to the restroom to brush my teeth so that while I am brushing my coffee is brewing at the same time, and as soon as I am done it’s waiting for me. Then I drink the coffee, and then I go back and take a shower.
What is the coffee scene like in your hometown/city?
HN: I grew in Kansas City, MO and I feel like every time go home to visit the coffee keeps getting better and better. There’s a cafe there called Broadway Cafe that I alway make an effort to go to whenever I’m there. The coffee is great and their roastery is just down the street so it’s always fresh. The cafe vibe is mellow. I miss it just talking about it.
VS: Well, for now my hometown is Los Angeles, and I would say coffee is more of a social drink and caffeine indulgence. It is not like Seattle or Portland, where every second shop is great. Los Angeles is still waking up to great coffee. Of course there is Intelligentsia, Commissary, Peet’s, Café Dulce etc., but considering the size of Los Angeles, we need more coffee shops.
Do you have a specific shop/roaster that you tend to frequent? What’s the vibe like?
HN: I live in Los Angeles now, in the Culver City area, and the place I frequent most would be Conservatory for Coffee and Tea. It’s a five-minute walk from my place. They have a little Diedrich roasting machine right when you step in to the cafe and that’s where they roast all of their coffees. It’s one of my favorite experience when I go into a cafe. I want the aroma to welcome me first. The cafe is a very small mom and pop kind of place with a line out the door all the time.
VS: Well, in all honesty it’s easy to frequent Peet’s and Starbucks on the West Coast because of the number of locations. On the other hand, if I am on the Westside or Silverlake, I do make it a religious effort to get a cappuccino or macchiato at Intelligentsia. … Apart from great coffee, I like the vibe of the people there. It’s got this mellow, laidback and artsy feel, so I kind of feel at home. I also would love to frequent Café Antigua more — it’s lesser known, but I like it because I feel I am in Central America and life has slowed down for me to relax.
What drew you to the idea building a film around coffee?
HN: It’s funny because I use to not drink coffee that much. It use to make me nauseous; I was able to handle lattes and sweet drinks but not drip coffee. One day I decided I wanted to make a documentary on coffee to learn more about it. I decided to get a job as a barista. I began working on this film in February of 2011 working as a barista at CoffeeBar LA, which had just opened. I knew if I wanted to make a documentary about coffee I would have to immerse myself in it. At first I didn’t know what I wanted to accomplish; I just knew I wanted the experience. The more I learn about coffee the more I want learn and that hasn’t stop since day one.
The only difference now is that I’ve built up a tolerance to drink A LOT of coffee.
VS: Actually for me, coming from a tea drinking country, I was amazed by how much coffee US consumed. Initially our game plan for the film was totally different — we wanted to make a movie about the coffee culture of some of the cities in the US like New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland. The idea of discovering the coffee scene was exciting, but then of course we expanded our horizons, like all documentaries do.
What was the biggest challenge presented over the course of making Caffeinated?
HN: I think the biggest challenge for me was finding the story that we want to tell. The more I learn about coffee the more confused I am with the story. The story we initially thought we would tell is completely different to the story presented in Caffeinated. I look back at our very first synopsis and chuckle at how naive we were then. There are so many aspects involved in coffee and to pick and choose what story or topic I think is important and fitting for Caffeinated is the hardest thing I’ve had to do. Vishal and I interviewed over 160 people who open their doors and their home to us so it was really hard to let go of those stories.
VS: It’s a universal answer for many docs: Money. We started traveling from country to country and the film became a beast of its own, but somehow people were going out of their way to help us out. Another difficult aspect was that there are so many interesting things in the journey of coffee; how does one pick one? As you see in the movie, we have consciously painted a much broader canvas, but the audience can then continue from there, discovering what it is that excites them in the coffees they consume.
Personally speaking, what was the biggest take-away from the experience? What was the most valuable thing Caffeinated taught you?
HN: This film has been my life for the past four years. Through the process, the experience has made me more aware of the foods I consume everyday. I’ve gained an understanding and a deep respect for the people working in the coffee industry, from farmers to baristas dedicating their life to bringing great coffees to others. I’ve made friends and personal connections with people through this film that hopefully will go on for the rest of my life.
VS: I think the biggest take-away from the experience was that when you do intimate interviews with 160 people across the globe on one topic, you kind of see an interrelatedness. I find that “interrelatedness” beautiful.
For example, there is a guy in Japan who quits tea and falls in love with a specific coffee. Accidentally you end up interviewing somebody else, he speaks a different language, looks different, but talks about the same coffee. Lastly, the guy who has grown it may not even know that these two countries are consuming the coffee from his farm! You see how one bean is telling you so many things.
After that experience, I have started observing the links, chains, and the connections between things better. Also, I must say, the coffee industry in the U.S. is full of generous people. They gave unconditionally. They were welcoming to share their expertise. I understand the competitive side of the business, but overall there is still a really good solidarity among them. I’m not sure if other industries are willing to do so much for the greater good of everybody.
What do you hope people take away from Caffeinated?
HN: I hope the viewer walks away with an awareness and appreciation for coffee and the people working behind those coffees, and that they don’t take it for granted. For me, I now know the work that it took for that cup of coffee to get into my hands every morning and I feel blessed.
VS: I hope they start a quest. Where does their coffee come from? Who grew it? Why do they love it? I hope they extend this to other foods as well. I feel a genuine connection with the origin binds us to our food more and we can have a fuller experience understanding not only its taste, but also its socio-economic impacts. Our decisions can impact many lives, and we should respect that empowerment.
What/where was the best cup of coffee/espresso you’ve ever had?
HN: We all have this moment of epiphany with coffee and mine was in CoffeeBar LA during a barista training session in brewing pour-overs. I still remember vividly the taste and smell of that coffee. It was an Ethiopian coffee from the Harrar region roasted by Vivace (a Seattle-based roastery). The coffee had an overwhelming aroma of blueberry jam and it tasted sublime!
VS: From the whole film looking back, we had numerous cups of amazing coffee. My most memorable was a macchiato at Vivace in Seattle. I won’t forget it for many years — hopefully never. Of course, we also tasted the Panama Esmeralda at Stumptown in Portland, and it was heavenly.