Aaron Blanco, owner of Brown Coffee Co., had traveled outside the U.S. many times to find the best coffee to serve to his customers in San Antonio. Over the last decade, Blanco made it a priority to cultivate relationships with coffee farmers from countries like Panama, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Costa Rica. When he decided to make a documentary on the ins and outs of coffee sourcing, he wanted to challenge himself and go somewhere he had never been before.
"Guatemala would've been too easy," Blanco, 44, told the San Antonio Current during an interview inside Brown Coffee Co. (1800 Broadway, Suite 1131) late last month. "We have a comfortable network there. We know what's going to happen. There are no surprises."
Instead, Blanco enlisted the talents of his friend, longtime customer and local filmmaker Lee Eubanks to make a trip with him to Nairobi, Kenya, to film what it was like to go through the entire process of sourcing coffee – java that might ultimately end up in cups for his clientele. This includes visiting farms, talking with farmers and taste testing hundreds of samples.
The feature-length documentary, Coffee Hunting: Kenya, makes its world premiere on May 12 at the Alamo Drafthouse Park North.
"We thought it would be a good idea to go to a place where I'd never been and at some point in the film be like, 'Where the hell are we? What just happened? What's going on?'" Blanco said. "That more accurately represents what it's like to go out in search of great coffee."
Eubanks, too, wanted to challenge himself as a filmmaker – one who is not a fan of the documentary genre. It didn't hurt that over the last few years he has become a self-described "coffee snob" and found the subject matter compelling.
"Most documentaries try to put on this façade of truth-telling and being real, but they're actually fictionalized," Eubanks, 30, said. "Going in, I didn't want to know too much about [coffee sourcing]. I wanted things to evolve and occur naturally. I just wanted to stand next to Aaron and be a fly on the wall."
For Blanco, it was important for the film to capture just how much hard work it takes to source coffee beans out of the Githembe Cooperative in the Thirika Mill in Kenya and get it back home to Brown Coffee Co. 9,000 miles away. Drinking an espresso is the final (and simplest) step of an arduous journey, Blanco said.
"We're like a duck," he explained. "It looks so nice and easy above the water, but it's paddling furiously underneath. We want more people to appreciate how much legwork goes into our coffee. We want this film to spark conversations and get people interested and knowledgeable about what we do."
Blanco has been doing what he does in San Antonio for 11 years. A native Texan, he and his wife moved back to the Lone Star State in 2005 from Philadelphia, where Blanco was working as a Starbucks manager. Starting on a small roaster set up in his parents' garage, Blanco's operation soon expanded into actual storefronts. With the food consciousness of the city becoming more and more elevated in the last few years, Blanco said local coffee shops are definitely part of the overall equation.
"I love how San Antonio is changing and growing," Blanco said. "People are looking for a better hamburger, a better salad, a better wine bar. Coffee is always in that mix. Brown is important to the coffee scene, which is essential to the food scene, which is essential to the culture of San Antonio. Coffee is a small piece of a very complex social puzzle. We're here now having our moment."
While a "moment" sounds somewhat fleeting, Brown Coffee Co.'s success is anything but. Along with his shop on Broadway, Blanco is opening two new locations: one in Methodist Stone Oak Hospital this week and one in the Southtown area this summer. Both shops will also serve quality coffee from around the world that Blanco has sourced himself – a practice he thinks is currently "en vogue" for coffee roasters in Texas. In Coffee Hunting: Kenya, viewers will get an opportunity to see Brown Coffee Co. in action.
"I'm always looking for coffee that is mind-blowingly delicious," Blanco said. "It should taste alive and of the place it is from. Every coffee has a personality. When you find a great coffee like that, you hold onto it like grim death."
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