CNBCfix review: Scott Wapner delivers a cup of capitalism at its finest in ‘The Coffee Addiction’

          Posted: Saturday, October 1, 2011

Scott Wapner, an emerging personality at CNBC, makes sure in his new documentary, "The Coffee Addiction," that you're going to enjoy your next cup of java.

Coffee-drinking is generally considered a happy pastime — otherwise, why would anyone bother — and Wapner's production ensures continued guilt-free consumption, lest anyone is harboring nagging doubts about the nutritional value or the economics.

In "Addiction," a cup of joe is a treat, it's hip, it might even improve your health, and best of all, it makes money for everyone down the line. Undoubtedly it's great publicity for the parties interviewed, especially Dillanos Coffee Roasters and La Familia Guzman, whose phones (where applicable) are bound to be ringing off the hook.

It's not surprising that "Addiction" relies on too many scenes of coffee shops. Its strength is Wapner's engaging trip into extremely rural Peru with Dillanos bean buyer Phil Beattie, whose job is to scout the elite global coffee-growing hotspots and buy beans that can be sold as premium brands.

Their daylong hike through muddy, narrow trails of uncertain security after an 11-hour flight might be overkill, the type that looks good in a documentary. Doing some calculations based on the numbers Wapner provides, at most, Dillanos is making about $14,000 profit from this particular trip, before overhead of an unstated amount; Wapner also notes that Beattie has been to this location 7 months prior. Presumably, Dillanos paid for its share of the trip and allowed Wapner's crew to tag along. One of two inferences must be made here: Either it's really tough to get ahead in the coffee business, or there is so much money sloshing around this industry, marginal scouting endeavors are the norm.

In fact, according to a Beattie interview in Fresh Cup, Dillanos gave CNBC the option of visiting a much more accessible site in Costa Rica, but producers chose Peru. "From the beginning, they were saying they wanted it to be National Geographic-style," Beattie reveals.

However unusual the Peru trip may or may not be, the Wapner-Beattie expedition is as rich as the beans. Viewers see a tranquil farm with accommodations of Third-World caliber; an outhouse, a lightly cloaked fountain shower for cleaning. There is a truck. (Wapner could've added interesting nuggets on electricity/TV/phone/Web access, if any, and general year-round climate conditions, but opted not to.) The 2nd-generation owner, at 47, comes across as a diligent, hard-working, humble businessman.

But if you're concerned about exploitation, don't be. At least not here. Guzman, we're told, while always facing weather and harvest risks, makes a good living in Peru and employs others. Wapner does not speak to the security situation in the area. Might the Guzmans have to answer to various local thugs or ransom-takers? This isn't a place where you call the FBI, and music echoing Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns is heard, but viewers see the Guzmans getting along just fine, even getting better treatment at the weigh-in/inspection than Sally Field's crew got in "Places in the Heart." Might Beattie have struck a harder bargain with Guzman had the CNBC cameras not been there? Perhaps, but this kind of publicity is worth more than the price of that batch, a win-win for all.

Ultimately, Wapner says Guzman's coffee will retail for $14.70 a pound. He says Guzman got roughly $6,500, or $232 for each 120-pound bag, which comes out to about $1.93 a pound.

Wapner also says Beattie paid $2.70 per pound (presumably including taxes or local fees), rising to $3.83 per pound when shipment is added, then $7 for roasting and packaging and finally $10.50 for marketing and distribution (but before overhead).

This seems like capitalism at its finest. Everyone from the grower to the futures trader is getting ahead. But Wapner gives token attention to Fair Trade USA CEO Paul Rice, whose group according to Wapner sets a minimum price for rural growers too often faced with this scenario described by Rice: "You're selling to middlemen who basically roll up in a truck and say 'OK, today's price is X, take it or leave it'."

Actually, that only sounds like capitalism. If they're showing up with guns, or muscling out other middlemen who might be planning a visit, that's different. Wapner just shows footage of peaceful Third World growers reaping successful harvests.

He's not going to be Mike Wallace here. There are no intense, demanding questions at any level of the process, from growers (is there exploitation, child labor), to futures traders (a lot of people think the futures markets are rigged; is this one), to dietitians (can this stuff really actually be considered healthy).

More than that, he's not having as much fun with the material as he should. Data points would be interesting. What percentages of coffee sold are consumed at home, in the car, in the office, and at social gatherings? What's the average age of today's coffee drinker compared with that of 1961? Does Starbucks cause people to gain weight, or lose it?

Wapner also fails to draw conclusions about coffee's popularity. It would seem as though it has something in common with his obesity documentary from 2010, that, like overeating, coffee-drinking is one of life's simple pleasures more accessible to an increasingly prosperous society. Is it something people will drop during a Great Recession? Evidently not.

For whatever reason, Wapner doesn't open the program with his Peruvian trip, but countless shots of barista-ville and the cool people who are into coffee, including M'lissa Owens, a former premed student with plenty of tattoos and one-time cover model for Barista magazine; and Marty Curtis, who slightly resembles a Deadhead but is an elite engineer of coffee-roasting.

There's a fine implication there that this is serious business, but then Wapner conducts a half-hearted semantical exercise as to whether caffeine is an addictive drug. Don't be scared. Wapner quotes Vanderbilt's Dr. Peter Martin — "some of his funding has come from coffee companies like Nestle and Starbucks," Wapner says — as saying "addiction is not having balance in your life" and that coffee "may actually be beneficial" to one's health.

Wapner says the "medical consensus" is that caffeine fix is "less of an addiction" — an odd characterization given the title of the program — "and more of a physical dependence" that can lead to migraines and mood alterations upon withdrawal.

But, "you're not going to rob a bank or kill your wife to get that cup of coffee," Martin says.

Any coffee program is going to be compelled to mention Starbucks. Wapner gives it 8½ minutes, not nearly enough time to do it justice but too much to interfere with the other interesting material he's got. He wastes too much of this limited time on unnecessary company intro (everyone knows what it is and what it does) and limits the analysis to 3 areas, stern universal taste-testing to avoid the "bitter" tag (if you think it is bitter, Dub Hay's message is that you're choosing the wrong flavor for yourself), overexpansion, and how baristas shouldn't turn their backs on customers (even though they still do). The Seattle Times' Melissa Allison concisely explains how the company overbuilt. Wapner, whose documentaries would be better if he was able to show the same type of wonderment at what he's hearing as he expresses on his live CNBC shows, veers too far in that direction this time when observing with some purported degree of surprise, "So you could literally have a Starbucks here, and then you may have one across the street, and then a block down, you could have another one." Yes. That has proved to be within the realm of possibility.

If you didn't feel compelled to pour yourself a cup of joe while watching this program, you're in the minority. Don't fight it. Wapner manages to cite a Harvard study finding that moderate coffee-drinking may help stave off Type 2 diabetes and Parkinson's. "More reason, perhaps, to spare the guilt and have a cup," he says.

Footnote: If you want to know where you can buy La Familia Guzman coffee, it is available on this Dillanos Web site.

"The Coffee Addiction" (2011)
Featuring: Joshua Boyt, Metronome, M'lissa Owens, Marty Curtis, Stephen Braun, Peter Martin, Phil Beattie, Guzman Inga, Paul Rice, Dub Hay, Melissa Allison, Arthur Rubinfeld, ICE coffee trader 5059, Robert Stiller, Larry Blanford

Host: Scott Wapner
Senior executive producer: Mitch Weitzner
Senior producer: Mary Noonan Robichaux
Producer: Steven Schnee
Field producer: Morgan Brasfield
Editors: Steven T. Banton, Allison Stedman
Camera: Gerard Miller, Oscar Molina
Audio: David Grogan, Oscar Molina
Additional camera: Bob Boccaccio, Jim Curtin, Don Friedell, Alex Herrera, Joe Hoffman, LeRoy Jackson, Raul Marin, Jim Watt, Robert Weller, Mike Vaughn, Cristiano Samassa
Additional audio: Brian Albritton, Jordan Chassan, Jeff Duncan, Mark Iler, Gus Salazar, Mark Shaw, Kelly Watt, Everett Wong, Hans Van Den Bold, Matt Vogel
Manager & chief photographer: Angel Perez
Director of post production: Vito Tattoli
Global creative director: Victoria Todis
Senior designer/animator: Jacqueline Dessel
Senior designer: Nick O'Connor
Production manager: Tracy Lawrence
Media coordinator: Richard Marko
Production associate: Meghan Lisson
Music archivists: Lauren Ricci Horn, Salvatore Carosone
Interns: Joseph Ferraro, Eric Gembarowski, Sarah Prisco
Special thanks: Cafe Angelique, News Cafeicultura, Coffee Growers Federation, Cerrado Mineiro, Specialty Coffee Association of America, Macy's, National Coffee Association, Philip Plait, Jemglo Productions, Sustainable Harvest
Vice president, long form programming: Ray Borelli

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