Sarah Allen delved into the barista underground from an unlikely entry point: “I became a teenage boy for six months,” she says. As a grad student at U of O in Eugene, Sarah focused on subcultures and sought out to follow the type of teen that fits the profile of those who have become high school gunmen. She volunteered in a classroom, and chose a boy and his group of friends to shadow. In such a study, the researcher shouldn’t typically affect her subjects, but she says, “having that attention on him actually made him gain confidence.” Lucky for us, her effect has been much the same on the coffee industry.
“I feel exceptionally happy as a writer to live and work within the community I write about,” she says.
Sarah grew up in Berkeley, California and worked as a music critic for a paper in the Bay Area for a time until she went to grad school. In 2001, she started writing for the trade magazine Fresh Cup, and later became further enmeshed in barista culture when she became a trainer at Zoka Coffee in Seattle for a year, helping baristas prepare their presentation element for barista competitions. “This was the time when everyone thought baristas were college kids who were trying to buy beer and didn’t really give a shit about what they were doing,” she says. “Then there was this group especially from Seattle and Portland who were really invested in [being baristas] as a career, and that was what I was really interested in.”
Sarah and her husband Ken Olsen, who is also a writer and acts as Barista Magazine’s publisher, quit their day jobs and founded the publication in 2005. “We decided in the beginning we weren’t going to rely on professional freelancers. I wanted all of our writers to work in the coffee industry.”
The magazine’s tagline is “Serving people serving coffee,” and Sarah says they choose to feature role model types — people that are doing unique and interesting things.
The magazine has subscribers in 78 countries, and in the last year, Sarah and Ken have been to El Salvador to visit producer Aida Batlle (who Sarah is close friends with), Mexico, Ethiopia and South Africa, Paris, Russia, and Tokyo. The couple travels internationally to speak at barista conferences, cover competitions, attend Barista Nation events, and much more. “When we started Barista Magazine, our family asked us, ‘how long can you write about this really narrow topic?’ But I am endlessly interested in coffee and we can write about it forever and not even cover a tenth of it.”
“We still operate on a shoestring,” she says. “It’s always been us. We work in the upstairs of our house, with the dog, wearing our PJs everyday.”
But Sarah says at the heart of it, it’s the baristas who keep her engaged. “It’s the type of people who are in coffee that is part of why I’m drawn to it. They are liberal and they are curious and they’re fun and they like to be goofy. They always sort of reminded me of people I really liked in the music industry. They are insatiable about wanting to figure out more.”
Right now Allen says she’s “wound up about Africa.” After traveling with a South African brother and sister duo who opened a roastery and cafe in Johannesburg that only use African coffees, she can’t wait to go back. “It’s such a big world and there’s so much to see … but as we get more Walmartized cities all look the same, but Africa doesn’t. Africa is wild and weird and amazing and raw. It’s so mysterious and so interesting.”
UPDATE: For more Stumptown/Barista Magazine collaborative love, check out green coffee buyer Darrin Daniel’s Ethiopia & Kenya feature in the April/May issue of the pub here.