Italian-Australian, James Harper, is the founder and host of Filter Stories—a podcast on the extraordinary stories behind a cup of coffee. Although his podcast features stories on others, among other aspects of coffee, today’s story focuses on the host himself.
James grew up in Sydney, Australia, and initially followed in his father’s footsteps. His father worked in finance and James followed suit. However, none of it appealed to him, and said that “everyone around [him], you know, they were basically dead behind the eyes.” And so, in his mid-twenties, he left the finance world.
Between quitting his job in finance and getting into coffee, he traveled a lot. His original plan was to visit China, but his brother was in the Himalayas and so James decided to join him in India. James spent six months in the country but soon realized that his money was slowly running out and he needed to figure out what he wanted to do with his life. The half-Australian says that challenges are what motivates him in life. He then decided that he would cycle the highest mountains in the world, and that’s what he did. When recounting his time in the mountains, he said:
“There’s not enough oxygen, so there’s only so fast you can go.”
James’ moment of clarity surfaced in those high mountains. He had ample time to reflect and read a few books about the world, life, and the afterlife. It was in those moments, up in the mountains, that he concluded that he wanted to get into coffee.
“I’m all about chasing challenges.”
James has always loved coffee, being half-Italian, he’s been drinking coffee since he was a teenager. He enjoyed spending time in coffee bars and especially liked the London coffee scene. But what deterred him from dipping his toes in the coffee industry sooner, was the judgment he thought he’d face. He assumed that people wouldn’t understand a career in coffee and how he couldn’t possibly make money from it.
Since James was half-Australian, he had an Australian passport and in 2015 he made his way to Melbourne, Australia. He tried to get a job as a barista but nobody was willing to hire him. For four months, James ran around Melbourne desperately seeking a job. It was then that he realized that the bar is extremely high for entry-level baristas in Australia. Despite being more than willing to do the work, no one was willing to give him a chance.
In the end, although he’s never worked in sales before, he managed to get a job in sales. It was for a big coffee roastery in Melbourne called “Grinders”. His start in the coffee industry was selling roasted coffee to coffee shops.
However, he ran into a number of problems while working there. One of them was that he fell in love with a woman living in Europe and since Australia was pretty far from where she was, he found it difficult. Another issue he faced was that he was selling commodity coffee whereas he was interested in specialty coffee.
After two years, he moved to Europe and got a job working at Berlin-based roaster The Barn as the Director of Wholesale. Again, his job had to do with selling coffee to cafés. When James felt as though he had learned the most he could, he left. In the year 2017, James was aware that he had always loved stories, story-telling, and in particular, audio stories. It was at that point that he realized that there weren’t any good story-telling podcasts in coffee and thought that perhaps he could be the first one to start it.
“That was my biggest challenge—trying to marry my passion and my interests and what I think I’m very good at with the hard facts that there’s little money in podcasting, especially in coffee podcasting.”
Since he had an idea of the direction he wanted his life to go in, he started by doing a lot of research and reading a lot of books, met many people, and bought microphones. James purchased a one-way ticket to Guatemala and landed in 2018. Another amazing feat, at that time, was that James learned Spanish in six weeks. He started recording people’s stories which then went on to become his Filter Stories podcast.
In the beginning, James spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to make money doing podcasts. Eventually, he figured it out but said,
“The hardest thing about running a podcast is making a living from podcasts.”
He also needed to decide what exactly his content will be. James realized that there was a huge desire to learn and understand the science behind coffee but science can be really difficult to understand. This is when he settled on creating a series where people can learn about the science behind coffee in a simpler way. Creating such a series was a challenge in itself but James thrived and really enjoyed it.
By January 2023, James has over 50 episodes across his various shows. Mostly, he does everything by himself and accepts help here and there from assistants. The podcast, Filter Stories, is a series of coffee documentaries about the world of coffee. It tackles aspects such as where coffee is grown, the challenges farmers, baristas, and others in coffee, face, as well as the history and the science of coffee.
Having been to Central America and done in-depth documentaries, James’ experience has taught him how difficult it is to be a coffee farmer. On the other end, he also recognizes that the life of a barista is also extremely difficult. He is of the notion that the farmer (and especially, the picker) and the barista are the hardest workers yet they are at the lowest-paid ends of the coffee supply chain. Their jobs, however, are so critical to the production of coffee.
“The pickers probably have the hardest deal in all of coffee. They also are the most marginalized, have the least economic opportunities, [and] oftentimes the least education. It’s a hard job—picking coffee is a bloody hard job.”
During his time in Central America, James had uncovered some delicate and uncomfortable truths about the coffee industry. He found that the specialty coffee farmers, who built big farming brands which produced high-quality coffee, came from already relatively wealthy families. The reality, he says, is that those farmers have inherited a vast amount of inter-generational wealth.
James is passionate about social progress, environmental concerns, and equity in the coffee supply chain—where pickers can earn a wage that affords them to send their kids to school and have them obtain a decent education. Another aspect he feels that should be talked about more is that baristas have it hard as well with their long hours yet small wage.
The host of Filter Stories has a plan for 2023. He is determined not to stretch himself too thin this year and wants to focus on creating the second series of A History of Coffee and The Science of Coffee. James may dabble in a few collaborations, but nothing beyond that.
The team at I’M NOT A BARISTA hopes that James Harper’s podcast reaches more people all over the world and can be translated into various languages so that more people can learn from his content, as we have.