Do You Know? JAMES HARPER, Filter Stories BY RACHEL NORTHROP
he Filter Stories podcast takes nothing for granted and investigates people, places, and issues in the coffee industry that are often viewed as taboo. Podcaster James Harper steps right up to explore the coffee stories beyond and behind the headlines, and he does it all with a cheerful curiosity, deep respect, and genuine hope that it all will help the coffee community understand each other more fully. FRESH CUP : What is Filter Stories? Give us the elevator pitch. What can everyone, from coffee newbies to lifetime professionals, take away from the podcast? JAMES HARPER: Filter Stories are audio documentaries about people in coffee. The podcast unpacks big themes that are contained in a single person’s personal journey. Coffee intersects with so many different issues—and there are so many issues within coffee—and people are at the heart of everything. So, I use investigative documentary journalism to bring the realities of the coffee industry to you in a fun, digestible, 30-minute little story—as long as it takes to drink a cup of filter coffee. We’re very bean-focused in the coffee industry. We fetishize this bean and the flavors of the bean so much, and there’s a place for that, but, I’m really in it for the people. And I think a lot of people are in it for the people. So these are the real human stories that are much more interesting and enlightening and we can relate to. I bring these stories that no one has quite heard before—I spend a lot of time finding these stories—that reveal surprising aspects that no one’s ever thought or considered before
20 ] OCTOBER 2019 » freshcup.com
about this industry we call specialty coffee, or coffee generally. Because these are stories you’ve not heard before, they might shift how you see coffee for the rest of the day. How did you get started with the podcast? What was your inspiration or motivation? Filter Stories is only about a year and a half old. Tell us a little about the transition from idea to reality. How far should I go back in the story? My story of Filter Stories is a much longer story, in the sense that I used to be a banker in London. I quit that because I wasn’t passionate about finance; making other people rich in that boring world wasn’t doing it for me. I ended up in India on a motorcycle, and then on a bicycle, in the Himalayas and I had an epiphany moment. I’m not a particularly spiritual person, but I decided in that moment, “I’m going to pursue coffee.” At that time, it just ticked all the boxes. The preoccupations, things that were holding me back—by the time I had reached six months in India on that bicycle I had let go of them all. I ended up in Melbourne, worked for a coffee roastery, and then came to Europe. I was in Berlin and worked for The Barn as their wholesale manager. I had always idolized specialty coffee and now I was in it, at the controls of the wholesale department, but I was like, “Wow, no one knows anything. That’s just extraordinary. We’re spinning these stories, and no one has any idea what the reality is.” Then it was a question of, what next? I’ve always loved stories, This American Life, NPR. I knew there was a gap in the coffee space, and I thought I might have the skills to fill it. Even though it’s really hard to make this
stuff and I didn’t really know how to do it, I did all the proper things: market research, audience analysis, all the things that you’re supposed to do before you spend the next three years of your life doing something. I was in Seoul in 2017 with a microphone in my back pocket recording the World Barista Championships while I helped stage manage the event. I collected four different barista stories, and these became the material for what would become the pilot episode. I needed to decide, out of this material, a) if I can make a decent story out of this and b) is anyone going to listen to it. So I made an episode…and no one liked it, so that one went in the bin, along with all the 50 hours of work, and then I realized that Martin [Shabaya, Kenya Barista Champion] had a much more interesting story, the underdog story. And the feedback was fantastic. I realized that there was something to be said for stories that weren’t showcased. They were stories that no one had really heard before or knew before, that challenged preconceptions and pointed out flaws in how this industry is structured. I picked up the phone to everyone I knew in coffee and selected my nine stories, booked tickets, and I went! I learned Spanish in six weeks, went really deep, and my eyes were blown open. I couldn’t believe what was going on in coffee-growing countries. These are realities we need to hear. And there were realities in consuming countries, too, barista stories, stories of misogyny in coffee. I came to Berlin, put it all together, got the smartest people I could to help me out with the constructive editorial feedback, and then I launched! It’s been a long journey since then and I have no plans of stopping anytime soon.