Listening to the Coffee: The Story of Coffee Podca...

Listening to the Coffee: The Story of Coffee Podcasts

What is your background music when you drive to work, cook your dinner, or brew your first cup of coffee in the morning? These days, listening to podcasts is the answer for many people. Today, in the U.S. – the largest podcast market – there are over 100 million active listeners with 200 million episode downloads weekly, according to Triton Digital, an audience measurement company. Podcasts have now become a much-welcomed form of entertainment and learning for all, but when looking back at the history of this media, it is surprisingly new compared to other formats such as videos and words. In the 1980s, “audio blogging” started to become a trend. It could be considered as the prototype for podcasts. Then with the invention of the iPod, the word “podcast” first appeared, coining the two words “iPod” and “broadcast”. However, podcasts didn’t really become a phenomenon until 2014 when This is American Life launched the first season of their Serial podcast. It was a surprise success, achieving 68 million downloads. The next stage of growth for podcasts happened in 2017 when The New York Times debuted The Daily news podcast. It got the highest unique monthly U.S. audience of any podcast in 2019.

Then, COVID-19 hit. Even though it has caused worldwide mess, it helped the podcast industry have another boom as the global population was restricted from going outdoors. Nielsen’s new report shows that the U.S. podcast listener base has grown by 40% over the past three years, and more than half of them said they started listening during the past two years during the pandemic. In China, people called 2022 “the first year of the podcast era”. According to a report released by the professional marketing research company iResearch, the number of new Chinese podcasts in China in 2020 surpassed 7,000, a year-on-year increase of 412%; and the number of podcast users in China has reached nearly 70 million.

Looking at the future, there is no doubt that the growth of podcasts will continue. According to Grand View Research, the global podcasting market size was valued at USD 18.52 billion in 2022 and is estimated to expand at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 27.6% from 2023 to 2030. With the prosperity of the industry, more players joined, and more diverse content and topics have appeared. Coffee is one of them.

Turning Taste into Auditory: How Podcasts Make Magic

The nature of the podcast encourages more people, from coffee experts to coffee lovers, to join the conversation and contribute to the coffee community. Especially for those with a professional background, it is a better way to pass on their knowledge to the community more effectively and efficiently. In fact, that’s what many coffee professionals are doing at the moment. For example, former winemaker turned fermentation and coffee processing specialist Lucia Solis made a podcast focusing on the agricultural side of coffee production called Making Coffee with Lucia Solis. With years of experience working with coffee producers throughout Latin America, Lucia specializes in using microbes to create reproducible flavor profiles and provide stability to a highly variable process. In her podcast, you can hear topics such as how sugar content differs based on processing style: washed, honey, or natural. Or another episode discussed how the coffee terroir would influence coffee taste. Through podcasts, listeners could gain a lot of professional and exclusive coffee-producing knowledge from an expert that they cannot find anywhere else. On top of that, it is free. Podcasts like these, made by coffee professionals with their passions and goodwill, truly help the coffee community improve.

Podcasts also provide an emotional link for listeners and the hosts. The coffee writer and host of Boss Barista, Ashley Rodriguez, explained the difference between words and audio. She said: “I think there’s something really striking about hearing someone speak, about really tuning into what a person is saying. For me, podcasts give an added emotional weight because you get to hear people in their own words share their stories.”

As the New Yorker once commented, as a medium of deep intimacy, podcasts can slowly build stories and form an emotional atmosphere. The emotional transmission efficiency of voice is higher, and immediate reactions such as the use of words, laughter, or silence make people feel real and have a sense of companionship; therefore, a trusting relationship is formed from this.

In fact, a few interviewees I talked to mentioned the intimate emotional feeling empowered by podcasts, including the founder of I’M NOT A BARISTA, Micky Wang. I’M NOT A BARISTA is an NPO (not-for-profit organization), especially for the barista group. The organization aims to empower the people behind the cup by sharing their stories with the broader public and providing them financial support. Micky and the volunteers have documented more than 200 barista stories to give the heroes behind coffee bars, famous or unknown, a shout-out. As podcasts started to get popular in 2020, Micky decided to try to use the podcast as a new way to fulfill the organization’s mission.

When Micky first thought of forming an NPO for baristas, it was thanks to his encounter with a world barista champion in 2018. He found out that baristas are just like ordinary people in daily life, but when it comes to their professions, they suddenly become the star – put all their life into their careers, into the coffee industry. He realized that being a barista is not about pushing a button on a coffee machine. Rather it requires knowledge and techniques after years of learning and pursuing. He wants more people to listen to their stories; a podcast is a “truer” medium for barista stories from his view. “Many times, you may have read the text and seen the photos, but it is still difficult to feel what this person is really like. When you are listening to the podcast, you will find that this person is different from what you imagined through their tone and rhythm of speech in words, and your feelings for this person would go further.”

Easy to start and operate, less time and money-consuming, and, more importantly, a more intimate feeling it contains, podcasts have become a perfect medium for baristas, experts, and coffee lovers.

When Coffee Meets Podcasts: How It Diversifies the Coffee Community

I’M NOT A BARISTA started its podcast in 2021 when the COVID-19 hit. For each episode, the founder and the podcast host, Micky Wang, would invite one coffee industry guest to share their stories. Attached to the podcast is an article profile of the person as well. There is no specific topic for the episodes. The guest could say and share anything they wanted to discuss, from barista life to start-up stories. So many times, when you listen to I’M NOT A BARISTA, you don’t know what you are expecting. However, that is where most listeners would get pleasant surprises from those “Meet Somebody” episodes. Nevertheless, to create all the content, the only man behind it is Micky, sometimes with parttime volunteers. From inviting guests to editing episodes, Micky did it all. For him, making podcasts is not for profit but another medium to volume up the voices of baristas. “A lot of the time, we would interview an unknown barista with a terrific story. They may not have had the opportunity to tell the story to others before, but after being on our podcast, they may feel that being a barista could be rewarding. They would feel that at least someone is willing to listen to their experience. The podcast could give people in this industry such a rare opportunity,” said Micky.

For many coffee podcasts, the hosts only use it more as a tool for external exposure with no business purpose. Nevertheless, someone is still successfully taking the coffee podcast to the next level and making it his own business. Keys to the Shop is a podcast designed to provide the coffee retail professional with insights, inspiration, and the tools needed to grow and advance your coffee career or business. Through interviews with experts both in and outside the coffee industry, listeners could get specific, practical, and actionable advice about barista work, management, and leadership skills, all for free. The podcast host Chris Deferio has been in the specialty coffee industry for 23 years, deeply involved in the early third-wave movement, competitions, and working in many cafe leadership roles over these decades. The show was born from Deferio’s desire to offer up what he used to long for as a manager and trainer to run a successful shop. “My goal is to offer a resource that grounds people, slows them down long enough to make wise choices, and puts roots down deep in the right areas. I want to make coffee shops and their people better and more fulfilling.” Deferio shared with us.

With about 10 episodes per month and never missing one, Deferio always tries to make sure each episode is meaningful and impactful, not just a throw-away episode. Now the show has nearly 2.5 million downloads and over 700 episodes published and is listed in over 170 countries. “It is thrilling to know there are companies that have used Keys to the Shop as their primary resource from the time they launched until now. I am constantly humbled and take my role in producing this content very seriously as I steward the wisdom of our collective industry,” he said.

In fact, Keys to the Shop is a win-win for both the listeners and Deferio himself. On the one hand, the listeners could reach some of the rarest materials on barista work and shop management. On the other hand, Deferio also won many of his customers through his podcast, even though he did not start the show with that in mind. He shared: “I was pretty shy about promoting my services, but I have got over that and feel that I want to make sure the right people hear about it and have the chance to work with me and I have the opportunity to serve them. My clients say that they feel they already know me from the show, and as a result, they know my values, and it has been the number one thing that has attracted them to me.” Working full-time on the podcast, Deferio successfully sustains his family and works to grow the business and serve more clients in need appropriately.

While most coffee podcasts are in the form of interviews, as it needs less preparation and production, one man insists on swimming upstream. Filter Stories is probably the only documentary-style coffee podcast in the field. In this podcast, you could find many amazing stories, for example, an award-winning coffee grower earning just US$2 profit from 250 espressos; or a coffee producer who is almost murdered three times during a civil war. Recently, Filter Stories released a new series about coffee history as well as coffee science.

“Back in the day, I loved many documentary styles of podcasts like This American Life. I want to listen to this style of coffee podcast, but it didn’t exist. I wished it existed. I know others wish it existed. Therefore, I decided to try it. At the very least, what’s the worst that’s going to happen if I make it? If you can’t make a living out of it, it’s a great experience anyway. I had some savings, so I began what became Filter Stories.” Said James Harper, the host of Filter Stories.

James Harper, the host of Filter Stories

It might be hard to believe that, with his most popular series reaching over 100,000 listens, James Harper, the Filter Stories host, had zero experience making documentary podcasts before he started the project. Initially working in finance, Harper realized his genuine interest was in coffee. So he quit his job and started a new career in coffee. While working as a coffee wholesaler, Harper found himself in the middle of specialty coffee. He wanted to know more about specialty coffee, but all he could access was only very filtered information. “You don’t get into the real truth of the matter, like who is farming my coffee? What’s really going on? There are a lot of stories that are out there, but I’m not hearing them. I guess this is the documentary person in me. I love to explore these profound stories. I also love audio narrative stories. So I decided to make my own documentary coffee podcast.”

In 2017, Harper began his journey of making a documentary-style coffee podcast. He tried to talk to anybody who was in the podcast industry. He read a lot of books about how to make narrative audio. He also taught himself Spanish to better communicate with coffee farmers in Latin America. With a lot of practice and exploration, Harper is now the expert. Apart from doing his own podcast, he is also a producer and occasional host for other coffee podcasts, including 5THWAVE and Adventures in Coffee.

However, even with all the techniques and production methods learned along the way, it still takes much effort for Harper to make an excellent coffee documentary podcast. Sometimes, it can take up to 100 hours an episode. For example, in his The Science of Coffee series, there is one episode on plant genetics. For that episode, Harper interviewed four leading genetic experts in coffee. He also did a lot of reading to understand the interplay between genetics and coffee and all the theories behind it. To make the episode more accurate and convincing, Harper flew to Kenya and Ethiopia and spent a couple of days visiting coffee farmers and a genetic research laboratory to learn about a variety of species of coffee and their genetic development.

The reason why Harper puts so much effort into a coffee documentary is simply that he loves it. He believes that his hard work of getting all the different information and turning it into something digestive would help more people, whether professionals or amateurs, understand coffee better and sometimes help them rethink it. He told me in the interview: “There is absolutely a place for ‘speaking to the expert’ type of podcast because you hear directly from the expert. I choose to do what I do, bringing many experts together in a single episode, because you can listen very intently to it and soak it into your head. And when you really pay attention to anything like that, it then starts changing how you see the world.”

Luckily, Harper’s hard work on the coffee documentary podcast has paid off. He saw people discussing and reflecting on what he presented in the podcast. For example, in his last episode of The Science of Coffee, Harper addressed the impact of noise and how it detracts from the sensory experience of coffee. Noise is such a common thing in cafes that most of the time, people won’t really notice it, let alone discuss its impact on coffee. However, after the episode was released, Harper suddenly saw conversations happening around his community about adjusting the volume of cafe stereos or modifying cafe spaces to dampen noise. “It’s interesting how quickly I see everybody around me kind of rethinking and reshaping their thoughts on the matter,” he said.

Whether doing it all for free or making it a business, no matter conducting it as various interviews or pursuing high-quality documentaries, coffee folks are all using their own ways to contribute to the community to make it a better place. And podcasts have become a powerful medium to conquer the mission.

David And Goliath: The Coffee Podcast Business

“But also, frankly, there are only so many episodes I can make in a year. I’m limited,” said Harper when telling me the challenges he is now facing with his podcast. “It’s hard to scale what I create. If I want to scale it, I need money. And how much is enough money? Even though the whole podcast market is big, coffee media is a small industry.”

What Harper said is true, as many interviewees have confessed that the market for coffee podcasts is still small, and it might take years for it to grow. Micky told me in the interview that even though he hopes to reach a wider audience, the backstage stage of his podcast shows that most of his listeners are still people in the industry. There are people who are interested in coffee, but they might not necessarily want to dive into it. “You might drink Starbucks every day, but that doesn’t mean you want to know more about specialty coffee through a podcast.” Said Micky.

According to recent podcast reports by Nielsen and BuzzSprout, the most popular podcast genres include history, comedy, true crime and news. Food and drink is not the favored choice for most podcast listeners, let alone the coffee podcast under the segments. Some of my interviewees shared with me their average volume for each episode, and most well-performed ones are hardly surpassing 10,000. Even though the overall podcast market is big, it doesn’t mean that everyone can get a piece of the cake.

The relatively small scale of the market means fewer business opportunities. Almost all interviewees told me that their podcasts get spread mainly and only through word of mouth. Sometimes it is through the guests on their podcast. Other times, it is through friends and people they know in the industry.

And for many coffee podcasts, they are also still busy making ends meet. Sponsorships and memberships are the two most common ways coffee podcasts keep themselves alive. For example, Filter Stories’ business model primarily is sponsorships. The podcast collaborates with coffee companies who would both assist with a story and also want to create free educational content. However, according to Harper, it is a difficult model because to make it happen, he devotes a lot of time to getting sponsors interested, and then negotiating the partnership. For others like I’M NOT A BARISTA, it is a purer version of support. Micky shared that the start-up capital for his podcast came from a coffee equipment company called LilyDrip, only because the brand shares the same value with him and wants to help.

Besides sponsorship, membership is customary for coffee podcasts to keep their projects going. For Boss Barista, the podcast adapted a paid subscription model through the newsletter. However, with spendings like hosting platforms, taxes, and production fees, the rest generally goes to upkeep.

Even though it is a struggle for many coffee podcasts, it has potential. Taking the Chinese podcast Tipsy Proof as an example, it covers topics from wine and beer to coffee, tea, chocolates, and more. It tries all interesting forms, not limited to interviews, analyses of Drops of Gods – a Japanese comic book about wine, as well as documentaries and more. The two-year-old food & drink and lifestyle podcast has already attracted big cheese such as the Chinese e-commerce giant T-mall by Alibaba as well as RED, one of the biggest Chinese social media platforms. For instance, the podcast paired up with T-mall for collaborations for T-mall’s seasonal social media campaign on the Food & Drink segments with advertisements and customized discounts. Moreover, we also see some leading coffee brands in China testing water in podcasts. SATURNBIRD COFFEE, one of the most famous Chinese instant specialty coffee brands, has started its own podcast, inviting guests to chat with more than just coffee. From niche albums to travel maps to the current hot outdoor camping, the content hits young people’s interests and covers everything. The podcast content aligns with the brand tone and focuses on emotional value.

Looking at the bigger picture, podcast listeners tend to have a higher household income than the national average, have attained a higher education level, and be more ethnically diverse than the overall U.S. population, according to Triton Digital. As these might be the people who are more into specialty coffee, the listeners in the coffee segments might grow in the future.

However, before the boom comes, the biggest challenge for most coffee podcast hosts is to avoid the socalled “pod-fade”. In fact, it is an obstacle that most podcast hosts need to conquer. But with passion and faith, it could be easier for coffee podcast hosts than others. “Worth is based on what you value. I started this (podcast) by telling my wife if I do this, I will do it forever. No half measures or ‘pod fade’ as they say. I trusted in the beginning that there was deep value and beauty to be showcased in the industry. I have seen it.” Deferio shared his belief in his podcast at the end of our interview.

The coffee podcasts these hosts run are for more than just the audience. On the other hand, as many hosts agreed, it is also nourishment for themselves. “My earliest attempt at a podcast should be in 2019. My friend invited me to chat about cocktails on his podcast. He found the topic very interesting and encouraged me to make a show myself. At that time, I was working in a company, but as a person with a background in writing, I still had the desire to express myself. However, I was fed up with writing. On the other hand, making videos is too time and money-consuming. In the end, I chose to do audio to give it a try. I think, relatively speaking, for ordinary people, audio may be a lower barrier to entry, and it can be started quite quickly.” Ruisun, the host of Tipsy Proof said. Despite all the difficulties and challenges he faced; Harper, the host of Filter Stories, still puts all his effort into it because he loves what he is doing. “I am motivated very intrinsically. I go through all the hassle of trying to find the right partners for these stories because I am just very curious myself to know the answers. I really enjoy creating these stories because it’s very nourishing to me to be very creative in that way.”

Filter Stories

“I become a better, more thoughtful person after every interview. Boss Barista is as much a personal project as it is a podcast, I make for others to listen to, and I think that’s what makes it sustainable from an emotional level. I do this for myself first – to understand something new, to connect with people.” Added Rodriguez, the host of Boss Barista.

When I first started the article, I was very much focused on the business model and profits of coffee podcasts. I wanted to know how the coffee podcast industry runs. However, after talking to all the passionate podcast hosts, I realized that they are pursuing much more than just a podcast, more than just money. The people in the coffee community purely love the beverage, and they all have this nature of sharing and helping each other, and to make the coffee industry better. Therefore, no matter if it is for business or charity, no matter if it is for others or oneself, the coffee podcast will keep on broadcasting. And it would someday be someone’s background voice when driving, walking, or brewing a cup of coffee in the morning.