Wednesday, October 13, 2010

This is Coffee 1961


Among several video entries in the new MaxGuide to Coffee, the 1961 promotional piece "This is Coffee" from the Coffee Brewing Institute stands out in several ways. SPOILER ALERT: near the end, the grandiosity reaches full throttle as the narrator intones, "Perfect coffee: sending its glow into our lives around the clock."

In 12 minutes, this film covers the waterfront of thinking about coffee a half-century ago. (That is, right around the time I was born.) Most striking to me is the way that the film constantly refers to the importance of proper care of the coffee in order to ensure quality. I always associate these words with each other and with the philosophical novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, in which Robert Pirsig claims that caring is the inside of a structure whose outside is quality -- that is, they are deeply intertwined and both require focused attention and observation. Pirsig's work has had a profound influence on my thinking in general, and more recently I have explained how it relates to the preparation of coffee at a spiritual level.

Because of the deep meaning I associate with coffee care, it is especially jarring to see how the concept is used here. Rather than advocating that the consumer become deeply educated about the beverage, the 1961 Gestalt is one of reliance on experts, precision, and technology. Coming in the last year of innocence between Rachel Carson would pull the plug on blind faith in technology with Silent Spring, this video conveys what people had every reason to believe at the time. Precision in the measurement of water, coffee, and time are seen as the key to coffee perfection. The narrator alludes to the relevance of choosing an appropriate grind for the brewing method chosen, but goes on to suggest that careful measurement can somehow yield perfect coffee from a percolator, which is the electric chair for coffee -- where even the best coffee will go to die!

The film alludes several times to the rich story behind the cup, but glosses over most of the more interesting parts, characterizing the geographic variation with such sweeping, even offensive, broad brushes as the exotic Orientalism in the case of Turkish coffee and the zesty, dark vigor of Latin American coffee.It emphasizes good coffee while showing the harvest of mixed ripe and unripe, sun-grown coffee (as opposed to shade-grown coffee harvested at full ripeness, which really is good coffee). At 02:40, women are shown at a sorting table while the narrator extols the devotion of millions of men to the production of coffee.

A montage sequence near the end of the film is a transparent effort at up-selling, showing the virtues of coffee throughout the day, from the well-known morning wake-me-up to other uses throughout the day. At one point, the mood even turns to coffee romance!

Despite the many misgivings that come from a half-century of hindsight, I recommend this film for its broad coverage of coffee and for its glimpse into an earlier era. For further viewing, I recommend my coffee and tea film page, as well as the library guide from which I first learned of this CBI item.

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