Our blog series on the specialty-coffee industry’s most innovative podcasts continues. This week: Coffee UnCut with Alexandra LittleJohn
BY ASHLEY RODRIGUEZ
SPECIAL TO BARISTA MAGAZINE
There’d be no coffee podcast series without Alexandra LittleJohn. She’s the creator and host of Coffee Uncut, a hybrid interview style/gameshow podcast, and one particular episode about women sparked my interest and got me digging further into this genre. If you haven’t heard of Alex because of her podcast, you’ve probably heard her name as a member of various Barista Guild of America and Specialty Coffee Association of America committees. She’s also the specialty sales manager for Equator Coffees, which is headquartered in the San Francisco Bay Area, while Alex is based in Los Angeles. As Alex was the inspiration for this podcast series, I asked her a ton of questions and was surprised to learn about the initial direction of the show, how she managed to produce the series with a shoestring budget, and how she felt when the tables were turned and she was the guest of another coffee podcast featured as part of this series, Cat and Cloud.
Ashley: What made you want to start a podcast?
Alexandra: Originally, I wanted to start a strictly trivia based podcast because I love Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me and Ask Me Another on NPR. When I was a little girl I wanted to be on either television or radio. I figured this was the best way to fulfill that dream (at least a little) and also incorporate my career in coffee. Two passions + one idea = create coffee trivia podcast.
I mentioned to my good best friend, Devorah Fralach (also at Equator Coffees) that I wanted to start a podcast about coffee trivia, and she said, œYeah, you should totally do that.” That was right before the 2013 SCAA show in Boston. While I was working the coffee service for Symposium I chatted up others about the idea.
Ashley: Where were you professionally at this point, and where are you now?
Alexandra: When I started the podcast, I was working as a wholesale account manager/trainer at Verve Coffee Roasters, and moving lightly into a sales role. I was still very insecure about having this œbig girl job, and working directly with owners, chefs, and designers on setting up their coffee bars, advising on equipment, etc. I felt like I was still just this 16-year-old barista figuring out how to work for a high-profile coffee company, and I was learning SO much. It was one of the most exciting times in my career. Since I was remote in L.A. [Verve’s headquarters are located in Santa Cruz, and the company’s L.A. presence was not yet established], my time at Verve was also spent figuring a lot out. I was building my career in coffee and learning how to do a job that wasn’t in a retail setting anymore.
Now, I still feel like a young barista at times. But moving over to Equator, and working with women who have been roasting and selling coffee since I was in kindergarten ”well, it’s been incredible. I’m so much more confident now, and the opportunity to be directly mentored by a woman like Helen Russell is simply inspiring. Everyday I learn something new, and I am encouraged to keep learning, as well as keep asking œWhy?” In my career now I am still learning everyday, but the difference is that I’m also learning how to be in business, ethically and passionately, and still grow financially. It’s like I am a real adult or something.
Ashley: You had a blog initially. How did you envision the blog and the podcast fitting into your career and the current dialogue of coffee knowledge in general?
Alexandra: I didn’t think about it. I just did it because I wanted to. Originally, if you dig deep into my blog, it’s mostly about life, and life experiences, nothing really about coffee brewing, culture, or any of that. The one time I did write about coffee culture, I was comparing it to nail salons and my experience with service. The blog is just there, because I thought it would be fun. I soon realized that it takes commitment and a love of writing content that I just didn’t have at that time. I would love to write more, and I do, I just don’t publish it.
With the podcast, I wanted to share my experience with all these wonderfully inspiring people I knew I had the honor of meeting all the time, due to the nature of my work and volunteer[ing]. I thought about the 16-year-old me, how she would have wanted to be a fly on the wall in many of my campfire conversations at these coffee events I was attending. I was interested in sharing the coffee-focused conversations I was already having at events like TNTs, Expo, competitions, but especially the conversations I was having at Barista Camp.
Ashley: Were there things you wanted to know about coffee and coffee professionals that you felt were doable only in this format?
Alexandra: Maybe not things I wanted to know, but things I wanted to share. It was so powerful to realize that these baristas and coffee pros that I had admired, and followed were also just crazy humans like me, like all of us. Through my work with the BGA, I also realized that there was this perception of œthe cool kids club and I wanted to try and break down that barrier, which is where the coffee trivia comes in. No one knows everything about coffee, no matter how big a œcoffee-lebrity they are. I pictured young baristas playing trivia at home, along with the guests, and getting so excited if they knew the answer, and one of the œcoffee-lebrities didn’t. I love hearing the stumped celebrities on NPR while I was in my car ”why not have that with coffee?
Ashley: Was it popular?
Alexandra: I think so ”we had thousands of downloads, the podcast was number 7 out of all œFood Podcasts one week, and it was featured on the œNew and Noteworthy feed on iTunes. I think it’s still a tiny bit popular, mostly because I still have people email or tweet me about it, as well as introduce themselves as a Coffee UnCut fan. It’s so weird, and also humbling. Makes my day every time.
Ashley: Who did you want to feature in those first few episodes?
Alexandra: The first shows were all friends that wanted to support the show and believed in my idea. Nathanael May of Portland Roasting; Sam Lewontin of Everyman Espresso; and Daniel Suh of Provision Coffee ”all good friends, and we were just coming off the last competition season, so I wanted to talk about it. Competition was also the easiest trivia to come up with to kick start the show.
Originally I just wanted to have on guests that I had had personal experience with, had conversations about coffee, and thought they might bring a good perspective to the topics I wanted to talk about.
Ashley: What were the first few podcasts like to produce?
Alexandra: Difficult, and took lots of patience. We didn’t have the proper equipment, and we edited a lot. Neither one of us, [Alex’s roommate, who helped her record the podcasts] Jeff or myself, had experience in broadcasting. I was set on having at least 3 guests to keep the format consistent, but with calling in, recording, editing, and also not knowing how to use the technology out there, we were just doing it for fun and mostly free at this point.
Ashley: How would you describe the format of your podcast?
Alexandra: Absolutely gameshow format, at least that is what I was going for. I wanted the questions in the beginning of the show to bring out the variety of views from my panel of guests. I really wanted something similar to the NPR shows I knew and loved. I gained a sense of happiness and sadness at the end of every Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me when they do the last round of trivia. The same as hearing Garrison Keeler sign off on [an episode of] Prairie Home Companion ”I wanted to try and create that for my listeners with the show.
Ashley: You seemed to have a pretty set vision on the format that you stuck to except for the last episode with Anne Nylander ”what was that episode like?
As I said earlier, I don’t have a ton of discipline when it comes to writing. That includes, journaling, blogging, or any of the kind. However, I wanted a way to document my year. I just had a feeling my life was about to get really good, really hard, weird and all in-between with incredible experiences. I needed a way to document my life. My aunt told me about a gratitude jar, and using it to write down experiences, only good, that happened to me through out the year. If something I wanted to remember happened, I wrote it down, dated it, folded it up, and stuck it in the jar, not to be seen again until January 1 of the next year. Hopefully 365 or more great memories to be surprised with in the new year.
I was so happy with the results of that first jar, I wanted to share them with Anne, since we had spent so much time together that year. We could be the conversation about our experience in this crazy coffee life. In short, I thought it would be fun. Yes, I still have the jar, it’s in its 3rd year ¦ and I am really looking forward to January 1, 2016
Ashley: Do you have favorite episodes or moments?
Alexandra: The women in coffee one was pretty rad, definitely my favorite to go back and listen to. I had some pretty amazing women on that podcast. The one about espresso was pretty rad, too, having all those amazing competitors on to talk about espresso, with such differing views was inspiring in itself.
Ashley: A favorite person to interview?
Alexandra: Sam Lewontin, hands down. I had a pretty big crush on him at the time of that interview. We weren’t quite as close as we are now, so I was just googly-eyed ¦. He’s just so smart and articulate. I could listen to that man for hours, and now I can proudly say I have. We’re great friends now.
Ashley: Have there been any silly mishaps that were nightmares when they happened and are now ridiculous anecdotes?
Alexandra: Oh yes! I remember when my brother-from-another-mother, Colin Whitcomb, got so excited by the question, œWhat would you tell young baristas who are discouraged by having a career in coffee? œ or something along those lines ¦ he got so excited that he started yelling, œIf you don’t want to stop working in coffee, don’t stop working in coffee! [He] stood up and pulled his headset out and all I heard on the other end was him continuing to rant and the crash of a laptop. In that same episode, Colin and Cody Kinart were at the same house and we kept getting feedback because they couldn’t stand to be apart, and Cody kept fidgeting with his pocketknife ”click click click ¦ Those boys are out of control.
Ashley: Do you see your podcast changing in response or as a reflection of how the coffee industry is changing?
Alexandra: Absolutely. I have an idea to bring it back, but one guest at a time, and trying to bring it back to basics ”why we got into coffee in the first place, or something along those lines. There are so many people better able to talk about the science of coffee. I want to focus more on the people behind the excellent coffee that’s changing the world, one cup at a time.
Ashley: What do you think, looking back on the old episodes, you’ve learned as an interviewer?
Alexandra: I try to approach them the way I would in person, in a campfire-like conversation. Looking back, I think I focused too much on an even distribution of time on each panelist ”Nick Cho helped point that out to me. If I ever decide to resurrect Coffee Uncut, I’ll take his advice and try to keep it more conversational, easy, and more organic.
Ashley: What are some things you learned from the people you interviewed that you didn’t know before?
Alexandra: Too many to list. The most important was that we’re all still learning, and the journey is way more important than the destination.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ashley Rodriguez thought that she’d take a break from teaching middle school science and putz around in a coffee shop for a few months. She ended up digging it way more than teaching (and was vaguely better at it). After spending 5 years making coffee in New York, she now works for Sightglass Coffee in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter at @ashcommonname.