I love podcasts. I listen to podcasts about news, design, business, faith and of course, coffee. One of my favorite podcasts, Filter Stories, is a podcast started by James Harper that explores the extraordinary hidden stories behind your cup of coffee. A few weeks ago I learned that James had partnered with historian Jonathan Morris to explore the history of coffee in podcast form. I’ve read and listened to a lot about the history of coffee, but I was still very excited to listen to this one. I knew with James’ story-telling ability and Jonathan’s historical knowledge this six-part podcast was going to be very special, explore stories about the history of coffee I had never heard before and teach me a lot I didn’t know about coffee—and I was exactly right.
In the six episode series, A History of Coffee, James and Jonathan explore: the origins of coffee, how coffee became the industrial product it is today, the environmental impacts of coffee, instant coffee, certifications, specialty coffee and the future of coffee. Running throughout each episode is the theme about how we can make coffee kinder to the environment, while also being a more equitable industry for everyone involved. Here is a brief summary of each episode:
- Episode 1: Looks at how human begins discovered how to actually make coffee as we know it now by turning the coffee plant into the industrial crop we know today.
- Episode 2: Explores how the price of coffee was dramatically lowered by the enslavement of Africans in the Caribbean and how that continues to impact our assumptions of coffee pricing today.
- Episode 3: Discusses the rise of Brazil as a coffee producing country and how they exploited the environment to achieve the production goals of the industrial revolution. It also looks at who drove this demand (hint: it’s Americans) and why.
- Episode 4: Investigates the rise of instant coffee and how it makes coffee so much more accessible to so many more people. It also looks at the evolution of coffee during this time from Arabica to Robusta and how this plays out against the back-drop of the cold war.
- Episode 5: Focuses on certifications and discusses how successful the certifications were at addressing their goals.
- Episode 6: The final episode explores specialty coffee and how it has changed the coffee industry. It looks at the question “what does it mean to be specialty coffee” and looks ahead towards the future of coffee.
As you can see, while the overall story arc focuses on the history of coffee, the series addresses much bigger questions about coffee’s history and the coffee industry. The story goes so much deeper than a cursory look at the history of the beverage we all love so much.
I had the opportunity to ask James and Jonathan a few questions about the podcast and wanted to share their answers with you here. If you enjoy coffee and want to learn a bit more about its history in a format that is engaging, entertaining and extremely eye-opening, you need to check out A History of Coffee podcast.
What prompted you both to create the A History of Coffee podcast together?
Jonathan: Well, I’d better let you answer that for yourself, James. But for me, it’s a fantastic opportunity to sort of present the history of coffee to an audience in a new sort of format – for myself, certainly I’ve never done podcasting like this before – and a way of communicating what’s a fascinating history in a way that I know will resonate with many of the newer consumers of coffee, particularly that sort of speciality range that you and I are so interested in.
James: Yeah, yeah. I mean, people have tried to do a history of coffee series in podcast world, and they’ve done really, really “eh” job in my opinion. The proper potential of the podcast medium had not been used for the topic. It’s such a great opportunity to tell some really powerful stories and to help frame for new drinkers the many, many centuries of history that is embodied in every cup that we drink. And it was also prompted by the fact that I was sitting around in my garden with COVID, and I couldn’t go traveling and make my regular documentaries. And I was reading Jonathan’s book, and it was really so mind-blowing. I was reading chapters, and I’m like, “This chapter alone would make for a fantastic podcast episode.” And so that’s kind of what we did.
What is one of the most interesting tidbits that you learned about coffee or the story of coffee while working on the podcast?
James: Geez. Well, Jonathan, I’ll tell you what. When you talk about your book, what’s an interesting tidbit from your book?
Jonathan: Well, actually, I’ll tell you what, James. There are things I learned from the podcast because, obviously, I did more research again for the podcast. There’s really more in the podcast than even in the book. I learned more about countries where actually there no longer is coffee. Surinam, yeah? Surinam now has one coffee farm. But Surinam was vital in the history of coffee, and we tell that story. Venezuela, Ceylon, Sri Lanka, these places that we don’t associate with coffee at all now. And the chance to go into that history was really fascinating. But not what you wanted.
James: Oh man. Yeah. Oh man. Let me think. I mean, can I just say? I mean, every five minutes, my mind is absolutely blown doing this. Jonathan is like my version of Ask Jeeves. Anything you’re asking him, he’s going to have some amazing answer for. But—
Jonathan: When you said that, I thought you were implying politely that I’m an outdated search engine.
James: No, no. Not at all. Back in the day. Oh goodness. I mean, I didn’t quite appreciate just how ecologically devastating coffee has been to Brazilian natural forests. I mean, not just coffee, of course. Many other products contributed. But my God, how much of Brazil was slashed and burnt so that Americans could get their cup of Joe in the morning. It just blows my mind. This is covered in episode three. But yeah, it blew my mind, and maybe it might blow yours too.
Looking at the long and storied history of coffee, what is one thing you took away from it?
Jonathan: Well, I mean, there’s loads of stuff, but I think what we have been discussing, what we have looked at, is the way that in order to—the way that the system of coffee, the system of coffee trading, the system of why we’ve arrived at this point in the juncture of coffee, where we pretty much have a commodity, an everyday commodity that is being produced pretty much below cost price in order to maintain itself, and the steps that it took to get from where we start out with this incredibly highly priced prized bean from Mohka down to the coffee powder that you pick up in the cheap pile of the shop today, and what that actually means. That doesn’t sound exciting, but by God, when you go through the steps and the suffering and the costs that have been involved in achieving that, that’s the story I think that we focused on. And I think that has been really fascinating to follow.
A complete reframing of coffee that you drink in the morning, that’s what this podcast series has done for me.
James: Yeah, I don’t think you could have said it any better, Jonathan. I mean, a complete reframing of coffee that you drink in the morning, that’s what this podcast series has done for me. The stories we tell ourselves, particularly in speciality coffee, and you set it against the historical fact, I mean, the comparisons are just so different. I mean, the worlds are so different.
As a coffee consumer, what is something tangible we can do to make coffee a more equitable industry?
James: Oh man. Oh boy. We do cover this in episode five. I know one. Know what the farmer got paid and know what it costs to make coffee in that country. Two unbelievably simple things and unbelievably complicated things to figure out.
Jonathan: Yeah, that’s so true.
James: Make sure the farmer gets a decent price. But how do we know that? Step away from the greenwashing this industry is full of, but how do we actually know that? That’s how we could do it.
Jonathan: I think that what I would say in a way that ties in with the point of the podcast is unless you educate yourself, you won’t know. So the more you educate yourself about coffee, the better equipped you are to make those ethical choices. And in a way, the more you know, the more you realize there isn’t a shortcut to it. Yeah? So yeah, that’s really where I think you have to start.
After finishing the series, what do you hope listeners take away from the podcast series after listening?
James: Yeah. I mean, we kind of covered it already. But, I mean, I would love people to—every time that someone says something about coffee, the provenance of coffee, the story of a producer, or any kind of marketing that they see anywhere, that people are willing to say, “Excuse me. I’m going to call you on this one. I don’t think this is true.” I hope this podcast gives them the power to see through a lot of the gunk that we are told as coffee drinkers.
Jonathan: I think I’d take that further and say what I would like is that in one sense, we spend a lot of time busting coffee myths. We dethrone a lot of the easy, lovely stories about coffee, but what we actually find is something much richer, the real heritage of coffee. And actually, that’s much more interesting. And you can end up seeing the heritage of the coffee, tasting that heritage of the coffee. I think you’ll have a much better understanding of what’s in your cup and how it got there at the end of this.
James and Jonathan are the real deal and the A History of Coffee podcast has quickly become my favorite podcast I am listening to at the moment. Do yourself a favor and go listen to the podcast now! If you want to get a preview of the series, you can listen to the introductory episode below.