Today we’re excited to be joined by Barista Magazine editor and co-founder, Sarah Allen. We discuss with Sarah industry changes, startup challenges and growth through the nearly decade and a half history of Barista Magazine.
Highlights & Takeaways
Episode 96 Transcript
Brendan: Thanks for tuning in to another episode of the Drips & Draughts Podcast. We’ve got a good show for you today as we’re joined by Sarah Allen, the editor and the founder of Barista Magazine. Sarah was kind enough to carve some time out of her busy schedule to join us for an episode where we talked about the growth of the coffee industry, the growth of Barista Magazine over the past decade or more, and then we also get into Cold Brew a bit, and how Cold Brew has change from a trend to its own category now.
So, definitely a great interview with Sarah and as always, if you’re looking for links, or show notes from this episode, or any other you can find those on our website. For this episode the show notes will be available at dripsanddraughts.com/96. Geez, episode 96 already. We’re quickly coming up on our 100th episode, and I can’t say for certain what’s going to happen when we get to episode 100, but things are going to be changing a little bit.
All right, just a couple more things before we dive into the this interview with Sarah Allen from Barista Magazine. One, if you haven’t left a review for the podcast, please do so. Hop onto iTunes, leave us a quick rating or review. We’s appreciate it. Also, we’ve got a new stack of Cold Brew Avenue t-shirts here and we’re giving these things away. “How do you get one?” you ask. It’s easy. Hop on to our website, click on ask a question and just record a question for us. If we play it on air, boom, you get a t-shirt. Not able to record a question through your computer? That’s okay too. Give us a call 8-8-8-620-2-7-3-9, extension 6. Same rules apply. If we’d like your question, if we play it on an episode, boom, you get a t-shirt. Earning free stuff has never been so easy as it is with the Drips & Draughts podcast.
That’s going to do for the intro. Let’s get into today’s interview with Sarah Allen from Barista Magazine.
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Brendan: You’re listening to the Drips & Draughts Podcast. As always I’m Brandon Hanson and today I’m joined by Sarah Allen, the founder of Barista Magaizine. How are you Sarah?
Sarah: I am doing great Brandon. Thanks so much for having me.
Brendan: Yes, absolutely. Thanks for joining me. Would you mind giving us a little background bio on yourself, and maybe how you got into coffee, and the magazine world?
Sarah: Yes, I would be happy to. Well, people always think that I must have been a barista at some point in my life and that is not the case. I have far too much respect for this profession to even think that what I do at home is near the same level as the people who read our magazine. I’m a writer by trade. I went to undergrad and grad school for journalism and I worked at some major newspapers doing music criticism before I fell into coffee. Originally from the San Francisco Bay area, and I moved to Oregon for graduate school, and ended up at the Oregonian Newspaper after graduate school. I was there for not that long, about a year and a half.
It was right around the time in the early 2000s when newspapers were just feeling the pinch of online and so they sent all the cover reporters out to work in the burbs which was not my jam at all, so I was looking for something new to do and I found, randomly, a listing for an associate editor position at a coffee magazine which — that was Fresh Cup Magazine back in 2002.
I took that position and really, really right away fell in love with this industry, with — I think it had to do some with my background with musicians because baristas and cafe owners were very similar in that they were these passionate, driven, intelligent, sarcastic, hilarious people..
Sarah: Yes, exactly who were just all about following their dreams, and taking risks, and I just love that. It was right at the time when barista competitions were starting. Right when the Barista Guild of America was forming, and, so it was a really exciting time to be in coffee, and then, I will just quickly get to where we are which is that I was at Fresh Cup before I was promoted to editor. I was there for a little while and then my now-husband and I, he is also a writer by schooling and experience, and we just thought, “There are all these crazy entrepreneurs in specialty coffee. Who says we can’t be one as well? And this barista facet of the industry is just exploding, and what if we had a magazine just for baristas,” and I don’t think I would have ever had the courage to take a risk like that had I not gotten to know the creative minds in specialty coffee, but also, we were a lot younger and maybe were a lot more willing to live on Top Ramen for the next 5 years, and so, in 2005, we published the first issue of Barista Magazine and it came out at the SCAA conference in Seattle.
Sarah: This has been going 13 years now.
Brendan: Wow, well congrats. Lt’s say congrats to that.
Sarah: [chuckles] Thank you.
Brendan: You guys founded this just based on a love and, gosh, just the desire to get more deeply ingrained into coffee I guess?
Sarah: Yes, well, my focus in grad school was on subcultures. I was really interested in the cultures that people don’t just work in but live in. [clears throat] Excuse me, I’m still getting over last week’s flu and I just — I really, really loved that idea of living within the group of people that I was writing about, and I really loved these people that I was meeting in specialty coffee and so it seemed like — it really did seem like this was the time. If a magazine was going to come out about baristas, it was right then. I left Fresh Cup, took a job at a coffee company in Seattle just to be more on the level of the baristas, and working with them rather than just writing about them, so getting a little street cred with baristas. Was there for about a year and then we launched Barista Magazine.
Brendan: That’s awesome. What was that like starting a magazine, starting your own business, your own company? I’m an entrepreneur as well, so I know it can be stressful at times, but what was that like? Were you guys married at that time? Did you have a family to support? Or were you a little more free and did that maybe contribute to you guys starting at it when you did?
Sarah: Good question. Funnily enough we got engaged right around the time we quit our jobs to start the magazine. Getting married took a backseat for the next 3 years, but we didn’t have kids. We still don’t have kids. We consider our animals — we have a little zoo here of dogs and cats and fish, and the magazine is certainly like an offspring, but like I was saying, we didn’t have a mortgage at the time. We had the freedom in our lives to take this risk and one thing that’s different than our readers who start their — because we feel a lot of affinity with our readers because they’re all small cafe owners, independent business owners, and that’s what we are too. We still 100% own Barista Magazine, but what is very different about what we do compared to opening a coffee house is we do it all on our computers.
We started Barista Magazine with credit cards and loans from our generous parents, so it was not a situation where we were getting at lease where we were have a huge staff of employees to take care of. Compared to opening a brick and mortar, it was a little more at low risk.
Brendan: Got you. Did I hear that right, you guys are pretty much entirely mobile then?
Brendan: You do it from your computer?
Sarah: Yes. In the house that we have bought since we started the magazine, we bought a house that has a whole separate office area. We still work in our house. It’s completely separate from where we live, but it’s great because we can have the dogs in the office with us all day, and it’s all the best parts of being your own boss, but as you know, running your own business that means that you’re very often working on the weekends or working late at night.
Brendan: It can be a 24-hour day thing. That’s for sure.
Sarah: Yes, but it is very much the most rewarding job I’ve ever had just because it is–
Brendan: It’s yours.
Sarah: Yes, it’s all ours and it’s a labor of love–
Brendan: I get it. [chuckles]
Sarah: Yes, exactly.
Brendan: Well, cool. As a small business owner, are there any startup hurdles that you can think of offhand that might relate to somebody who’s thinking about opening a coffee shop or a roastery or a cold brewery now?
Sarah: Yes. Well, one thing that I wish we had had when we started that I think is a lot more open these days to cafe owners is asking people for advice. There might be this perception that no one would want to share their secrets, but I think that in large part, especially coffee industry, is full of people who want to see the industry as a whole succeed, want to see specialty coffee take off in a big way, or continue on the journey, or the path that it’s been on. I wish that we had had more people we could have asked for advice because really we were flying by the seat of our pants a lot of the time.
I would definitely say for a new business owner to just ask people if they can shadow them for a day, if they have books that they would recommend reading. There’s a fantastic book out now by Colin Harmon who owns 3fe in Dublin called What I Know About Running Coffee Shops. Straightforward as you can possibly get. This guy is a multi-time Irish Barista Champion, and there’s a whole chapter on toilets. There are things that you really have to know about to be a successful cafe owner. Yes, just asking for advice and help.
Brendan: I guess you’d be surprised at how far just asking could go. We call ourselves craft beverage industry people just because we deal in beer and kombucha and everything else, but on the podcast we often draw parallels to the beer industry that we see in the coffee industry, just willingness to share information, and just basically make the entire industry better by sharing.
Sarah: I absolutely agree with that. I’m in Portland, Oregon, and the Oregon coffee board was founded a few years ago, actually, based on the model of the Oregon wine board, which is connected to the Oregon craft beer world. It’s all about how we have so many great wineries in Oregon. Why are the ones who are all following the same business model competing rather than working together to make the region known for being great in wine? The Oregon Coffee Board has tried to mirror that in there shouldn’t be a lot of infighting between small roasters who are all buying the best coffees and using the best equipment. Why don’t they work together so Portland is known for all these great coffee houses rather than just one?
Brendan: Makes sense. Changing gears a little bit, getting back to Barista Magazine. Right now you release schedules every other month, and I know I’m asking this question with zero knowledge of what it takes to put out a single issue of a magazine. Is there any reason it’s not monthly?
Sarah: It’s a good question. There are two answers to it. One is even though we’ve been doing it for 13 years sometimes it feels like we just figured it out. It would change everything if we were to go to a monthly. The other thing is, so here’s an interesting insider story. Sometimes people wonder why all the coffee magazines are based in Portland. Fresh Cup is here, Roast Magazine is here, we’re here, and also this magazine called Imbibe, all in Portland. The reason is that at one time the woman who went on to found Roast whose name is Connie, myself, and the woman who went on to found Imbibe whose name is Karen, we all worked at Fresh Cup at the same time.
Sarah: Yes. It just so happened at one point Connie left, and she started Roast and Roast came out six times a year. We looked at that as our model when we started. Connie is a good friend as well. When we started Barista magazine we decided to publish in the opposite months of Roast. She comes out January, February, we come out February, March and so on. Then one year Connie started Roast, the next year we started Barista, the next year Karen started Imbibe, and everybody’s still in Portland. It was a good decision because I feel like our readers are really, really busy people. I don’t think that they necessarily have time to read everything that they want to read.
There is so much great literature available to independent coffee houses. It works for us to do the best magazine we can six times a year and our readers appreciate it. The feedback that we’ve gotten, the feedback that Connie has gotten as well has been, “This is good. This is good. Six times a year with a really substantial publication, that’s what we need.”
Brendan: Nice. That makes a ton of sense. In the time that you’ve been running Barista Magazine now, how has your magazine changed over the past decade since you’ve been running it?
Sarah: Well, it’s funny. I can’t really look at early issues of the magazine without cringing.
Brendan: I know how that goes. I can’t listen to early episodes of the podcast without cringing.
Sarah: Exactly. You learn so much as you go. While we’re very proud of all the issues and very, very grateful to all the people who’ve helped us put together every issue, writers photographers, illustrators, we do feel like Barista Magazine is the best that it’s ever been right now. There is one primary reason for that, and it’s the quality of the writers, photographers, and illustrators that we work with. As we have gotten more successful, we have invested money, any sort of profit back into the company, which for us, is hiring more and more and increasingly, veteran writers, photographers, and [unintelligible 00:18:06] illustrators.
We’ve also expanded our website quite a bit, especially in the last two years. We have a dedicated online editor whose name is Ashley and she’s fabulous. She’s in charge of putting up original content on Barista Magazine’s website every day. She has an editor that she works with — They’re a really great team. That has been really helpful because six times a year isn’t necessarily as much time as we want to have contact with our readers, and, so the website solves for that by giving daily updates on what’s going on in the industry. More content than we can put in the magazine, so that’s how–
Brendan: I’m sure that’s a nice complement to the six issues per year?
Sarah: Yes. That’s been our main area of growth in the last two years, I would say.
Brendan: I got to imagine the shift to mobile devices over the past few years has probably drawn a lot more traffic to the website as well now that people are just so connected with their phones all the time.
Sarah: Absolutely. We have an app that’s available on all the platforms for free. People can download every issue of Barista Magazine for free and read them on their mobile devices. We get a lot more readers that way.
Brendan: We’ll have to put a link to that in the show notes for you.
Brendan: Speaking a little more broadly and generally, how has the coffee or the barista industry changed in that time since you guys have started?
Sarah: It has been such a pleasure to watch. When we started Barista Magazine, we were confident it was a good idea, but we were not joined by all that many except for the people we were writing it for. The big equipment companies didn’t understand why there would be a publication focused on a group of people that they pretty much perceived to be college kids who need a job to buy beer on the weekends, or not serious professionals.
Back in those days, there weren’t equipment companies who are making investments into baristas to see what they thought about — Let’s try this new [unintelligible 00:20:48] combination on this grinder and bring in some great baristas to give us feedback. That wasn’t something that people were doing. There were a lot of really passionate young people. I was going to say kids but that diminishes it because they’re just so passionate, and, so committed out of the gate as baristas. When I say it’s been a pleasure to watch it’s because so many of those people that we met in the beginning who were struggling baristas are now really successful cafe owners. They’ve gone on and done exactly what we had hope they would do which take themselves really seriously.
I think Barista Magazine has been — I’ve really loved to see people say, “I didn’t think this was a serious career path until I saw that there was a whole magazine about it. That made me feel like it was legit, and so I keep working hard on it.
Brendan: That’s awesome.
Sarah: Yes. Now, no one questions it. Now, professional baristas are the trendsetters in the industry. They always were, but they’re taken seriously as that. The barista competitions have gotten so big that they’re a big money maker for the associations. There’s a lot more clout associated with it.
Brendan: Continuing on, would you say that that’s the single biggest change that you’ve seen in the industry since you’ve been running Barista Magazine?
Sarah: Gosh. I don’t know if I could say that there is one single biggest change. That, for sure, that attention to craft is for sure one of the biggest.
Brendan: Do you think that comes with consumer education as well? I could definitely say the same thing about the beer industry. You’ve seen so much more shift and focus to individuals, small breweries and craft breweries.
Sarah: Right. Yes. I think that the two industries are very, very similar. You’re the expert in the beer. That’s not my forte, but from what I know they are very similar. Consumer education, consumers understanding that beverages are part of the whole foodie galaxy. I remember a bar tender job I had a million years ago. We would order coffee with condiments on the order sheet when you’re ordering ingredients for the restaurant bar. Just the idea that coffee would be a condiment when it’s very much its own category, it’s a food. It’s interesting that people are — That perception has changed a lot. Fewer people get their coffee at 7/11, and the one’s who do get their coffee at 7/11 are looking for espresso beverages at 7/11 which isn’t something that you saw. All those years ago.
Brendan: If you were looking to learn more about cold brew or draft coffee, make sure you check out Keg Outlet’s Ultimate Guide to Cold Brewed Coffee and Serving Coffee on Draft. But hey, don’t just take my word for it. Here’s Daniel Brownie from the Brownie Beverage Company in Marfa, Texas.
Daniel: As I got on the internet, and started looking around, and I found Keg Outlet’s Ultimate Guide to Cold Brewed Coffee. Read it a couple more of times than I’ve read anything in my life. That was pretty much all the research I needed and–
Brendan: If you’re looking to start your journey with cold brew or draft coffee, check out the Ultimate Guide to Cold Brewed Coffee and Serving Coffee on Draft. A free 34 page e-book offered at kegoutlet.com. You can get there through the Drips and Draughts website by going to dripsandraughts.com/ultimateguide.
If you’re wondering what happened to our interview with Sarah, we are actually going to split this one into two parts. We had a nice halfway point when we transition from talking about Barista Magazine and the coffee industry as a whole into a talking about cold brew more specifically. Stay tuned for Part Two. That’s going to be Episode 98. It will come out in two weeks on February 16th.
Again, if you were looking for links and show notes for this episode, you can find those by going to dripsanddraughts.com/96. We’ll keep this outro short. Once again, thanks to Sarah Allen from Barista Magazine for joining us today. I’m Brendan Hanson, and I’ll see you again next week on
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