A request for sanitary public cuppings

the business of coffee houses

A request for sanitary public cuppings

Postby Brett Hanson on Fri Oct 09, 2009 2:02 pm

In my months as a free agent it appears that interest continues to grow for public cuppings and I'd like to think I'm one of the friendly voices heard requesting it. With this growth and participation by more and different players, I expected I would see a few variations on how the cuppings are executed. Specifically I had hoped to see someone step up and innovate by creating a sanitary public cupping program.

I know this would hamper some of the camaraderie-with-coffee-people and cachet of getting behind the scenes, but I don't see why it hasn't become a trend. For this industry where cupping notes can raise a coffee's status from blender-only to boutique-SO, it would seem prudent to protect the senses (and health) of at least the staff who are roasting, making buying decisions, and preparing drinks-- I'm assuming in most operations this is the whole staff.

Back at the ranch, the coffee quality team ran their own daily calibration cupping program and freely went cup-to-cup-and-person-to-person in addition to all their other pre/post cupping duties. They counted on each person to be accountable to the group and decide when he/she should sit out for the sake of illness, etc. When that team ran cuppings for groups within the company, however, they would modify the traditional cupping practice as follows.

grind, steep, etc
each cupper breaks crust/aroma with spoon
skim
+ each cupper is issued a shot glass and uses their spoon at each cup to spoon out a sample, drop that in their shot glass, and slurp the sample from there (instead of the spoon directly)

The procedure wouldn't satisfy a germaphobe, but it at least insures folks aren't essentially jamming their tongues into every single cup.

I've also heard tale of cuppings at origin where the participants spoon up a sample "away" from themselves (using the far edge of the spoon) and bring that sample to their lips with the near side of the spoon. This would seem less effective unless practiced by professionals, but that's not really the practice I'm addressing here.

This being cold and flu season, I think it's a perfect time for folks considering sanitary public cupping programs to put their ideas into effect. This customer (who's already suffered 2-not-cupping-related colds) would appreciate it.

Any takers?
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Re: A request for sanitary public cuppings

Postby nick on Fri Oct 09, 2009 7:33 pm

Might be a whole 'nother topic, but more and more, I'm not really a fan of 'public' (a.k.a. 'consumer') cuppings in general. I'm making a bit of an assumption here that, Brett, you meant consumer/non-professional cuppings when you wrote "public cuppings." I could be wrong.

Anyway, the greatest value derived from a coffee enthusiast's first few cuppings comes from the fact that most people have never tasted more than one coffee side-by-side before. Maybe doing 'coffee tastings' of a few coffees together would be of greater value to the novice coffee-taster. There's a place for introducing cupping to non-professionals, but mostly as an intermediate-to-advanced sort of experience.

Most first-time non-professional cuppers express some level of bewilderment and/or that feeling that the experience is over-their-heads in some way; not to mention the fact that maintaining the protocols necessary to make the cupping truly worthwhile is close to impossible.

Anyway, those are my semi-related two-cents. To be brutally honest, I've experienced a few public cuppings that seem to be motivated in some part by instilling that bewilderment and/or the over-their-heads feeling. It's supposed to be about valuable consumer education, folks... not about showing off how many strange, esoteric and borderline-irrelevant descriptors you can come up with for your consumer audience. :shock:
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Re: A request for sanitary public cuppings

Postby naznar on Sat Oct 10, 2009 1:46 pm

umm- heres a sanitary cupping program- just get a ton of spoons in a bowl of mildly hot water then use a fresh spoon for every cup, easy.
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Re: A request for sanitary public cuppings

Postby jmc on Sat Oct 10, 2009 4:27 pm

when i host cuppings everyone gets their own set of cups, it is more work and i often decide only to put one cup of each coffee out (per person - instead of our normal 3 of each at the qc table) but you don't have to worry about sanitation.
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Re: A request for sanitary public cuppings

Postby SL28ave on Sat Oct 10, 2009 8:02 pm

Tend to agree wit Nick here.
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Re: A request for sanitary public cuppings

Postby Ryan Willbur on Sun Oct 11, 2009 3:53 am

I agree with you, Nick. I think that teaching a customer to cup coffee is a bit arbitrary as opposed to just a general side-by-side tasting... More so, where could we be if instead of getting hung up on public cuppings we went crazy for teaching people how to make amazing coffee with slow brew methods?

As of late, we've tried to host other types of educational events. Yesterday, our bar was filled with some folks taking a roasting class. I only was able to overhear parts of the class with our roaster, Jared, but it was interesting to hear customers reactions as the learned why a dark roast might not be such a good thing after all.
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Re: A request for sanitary public cuppings

Postby Marshall on Sun Oct 11, 2009 10:29 am

As someone who still mainly consumes his coffee from the public side of the bar, I’ve always thought consumer cupping classes had dubious educational value. Sure, they are fun and a great bonding (and promotional) experience. But, cupping is a special protocol, originally designed to help green buyers make quick purchase decisions. It is several steps removed from how the consumer will ultimately experience the coffee, whether brewed at home or in a coffee bar.

For flat out consumer education, I don’t think anything beats comparative samplings of normally brewed coffees (including espresso).

And, oh yes, I’ve also thought public cuppings were seriously unhygienic.
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Re: A request for sanitary public cuppings

Postby Peter G on Sun Oct 11, 2009 6:09 pm

I always feel a special obligation to weigh in on behalf of public cupping. I'm a big believer, but I think the reasons I believe in it so much are surprising to most folks.

Let's take a step back and think about the place most consumers are coming from. They like food and drink, but aren't really professionals at anything. They may like wine, but are a little confused by wine tasting terminology. They may like artisan bread, but don't know much about what makes shattering-crust, chewy pain au levain special. Often, folks go through life with the suspicion that they, as a humble everyman, cannot quite pick up on the flavors and aromas that taste professionals can. Of course you and I know that almost EVERYBODY is capable of tasting things extremely well, but our snob-culture tells people that only guys with tweed jackets can taste wine. Anyway, people have this suspicion that they are not quite expert at tasting things. Meanwhile, these very consumers are distracted: advertisements, neon signs, clearance sales and wide selections compete for the consumer's attention. Pretty soon, someone shoves a paper cup in the consumer's hand and says "taste this". They don't have a chance. Between being distracted and being insecure about their ability to taste, they say something like "mmmm....good" and shuffle off to their next free sample. That's what the experience of tasting food in the marketplace is to most people- a confusing, monolithic series of samples shoved in their face at Whole Foods, the farmer's market, Costco, wherever.

At some point, most food-oriented consumers have a life-changing experience: they may visit an olive press on the way through wine country and see the pomace being pressed into oil, and taste a flight of fresh, unfiltered oil straight out of the press. They might visit a cheesemaker and taste what fresh curds taste like before they are cheddared and and aged. Usually, this is a transformative experience and these folks carry the story with them for the rest of their lives. They can tell the tale at a dinner party of the time they visited a vinegar house or a pasta maker or a peanut farm. They usually become connoisseurs at that point (the very word comes from the French verb "to know"; a connoisseur is literally a "knowledgeable person") and consume better cheese, pasta, vinegar, peanuts or whatever.

It's that experience I'm trying to get at when I am leading a public cupping. The very arcane-ness of the ritual makes it strange and appealing, and its slightly advanced level of difficulty makes people pay attention. I always tell people I am cupping with how this is a ritual usually reserved for coffee buyers and sellers, and that it is unusual to do it in the public space. This shakes people up a little bit; they are inclined to focus a little more and try a little harder. And, without fail, they experience the coffee in a deeper way than they would have out of a chemex or a french press.

Whenever I have done a straight sampling from a brew bar or a French press or whatever, people turn it into a coffee party- giggling and chatting. That's wonderful, of course, coffee and conversation go together wonderfully. However, in the arcane, quasi-professional environment of a cupping, I can explain that silent work is mandatory. The cuppers of course follow the rule, and therefore again have a deeper experience with the coffee.

Get where I'm going with this? Public cupping is valuable because it is a little difficult. This becomes a leadership challenge, of course: you have to make people feel safe in slurping and sniffing and doing all that weird stuff. Humor helps, of course. There is no place for stuffy attitudes or judgment. And the weird flavor descriptors have a tendency to alienate as well- keeping it simple enhances the experience for everyone. And when a consumer tastes the currant in a Kenyan or the jasmine of a Yirgacheffe, they have one of those transformative experiences- you can almost hear them telling their spouses about it when they get home.

So, where does that leave us with the hygiene thing? I dunno. My public health side wants to admit we really should worry about it, but the romantic in me thinks that we worry too much about that sort of thing and we should just enjoy each others' company. The very act of being in public means some exposure, whether from toilet seats or drinking fountains or communion or cupping.

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Re: A request for sanitary public cuppings

Postby trish on Mon Oct 12, 2009 7:04 am

There is a ton of value in getting anyone to taste coffee...I think we all agree on that. The question is - does the layperson need to participate in a full-on "Brazilian" cupping to get there. Seems like the mechanics of a cupping and all that protocol gets in the way and consumers leave without a real understanding of how to brew a great cup at home.

I'm going to get controversial here and say that I know a bunch of baristas that can set up a cupping and wax poetic about coffee, (because so many do so on a weekly basis) yet have very little idea about how to advise their customers about brew temp, brewers, grinding, etc.

And I'll always be the wonk that spoils the party by scolding folks for cutting corners on cupping protocol just so they can make it more approachable. How about just throwing up some presses and then you don't have to worry about not informing the customer or doing a lil bad test?
(shall we revisit the "weigh every cup" discussion? 8) )

With all that said, there will always be a group of loyal customers who know about cuppings and will want to do them. I do want to demystify the whole thing for sure, but I'm way more interested in not confusing the issue.
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Re: A request for sanitary public cuppings

Postby Jason Haeger on Mon Oct 12, 2009 7:50 am

Peter,

Well said. It takes them out of their element, and coffee becomes something to take seriously. Coffee for the sake of coffee. It's something that no side-by-side french press tasting could ever accomplish.

Comparing flavors is nothing like opening up someone's eyes to a whole new world, and a new avenue of fascination. It transforms coffee from something ordinary into something special almost instantly. (public cupping)
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Re: A request for sanitary public cuppings

Postby nick on Mon Oct 12, 2009 7:51 am

Pete,

I was 100000% with you until your fourth paragraph ("It's that experience…"). You used the word "taste" over dozen times or so. Why then is the leap to cupping absolutely necessary?

There IS value in demonstrating the cupping ritual, and in bringing consumers into that experience. The issue that I have is that I do not believe that cupping should be the primary way to try to engage consumers in coffee tasting, exploration, and discovery.

So my problem is that if you want people to learn about tasting coffee, then have a coffee tasting. If you want them to learn about cupping, then have a cupping. You don't need to cup coffee to learn about tasting coffee.

You're right that it takes leadership to manage the sniffing and slurping. It takes the same sort of leadership to facilitate a quality comparative coffee tasting experience.

Peter, I dunno if you get to see many public cuppings that you or one of your highly-trained staff don't lead very often, but I'd go as far as to say that more than HALF the 'public cuppings' that I've experienced (at other shops, venues, roasters, etc.) have been pretty much complete cluster-f*&ks.

(P.S. No, Trish and I didn't post from the same room… didn't even know at first that she posted).
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Re: A request for sanitary public cuppings

Postby trish on Mon Oct 12, 2009 8:07 am

woa, nick. Are you saying that we are two completely independent thinkers? really? Some don't believe you right now.

We must also be totally honest here, and say that anytime we are doing a public cupping, it is going to be a "market roast" or production cupping. And so I will get all wonky and now argue that we are actually not teaching customers anything real about what we do in our work. We only set up multiple cups so there is enough to consume...and then we TELL participants that this is to test for consistency....but not this time...this is just to show you how it is done, but is irrelevant now because we are cupping coffees on our menu, actually...they've already been chosen and .....

See how we defeat the purpose on any number of issues?
"And the forms we use for scoring? Oh, never mind all that...it's just what we use and it would take you too long to understand it."

How does that help folks understand scores?
On and on.

Mind you, this dialog comes directly from personal memory. I was required to facilitate consumer cuppings on a regular basis at a previous job.
Just being devil's advocate here.
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Re: A request for sanitary public cuppings

Postby AdamPalmer on Mon Oct 12, 2009 8:19 am

Hear, hear Brett. I've always found sanitation to be lacking with cuppings. Whether public or not, I think there's a need for improvement. I used to go along with it, because "that's what everyone else was doing," but no longer. I got sick more often than usual my first year in the industry, and I don't think it was a coincidence.

I haven't come across any cuppings that I would consider sanitary, but I'm pushing for it. The first solution that comes to mind is individual cups for everyone. No sharing.
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Re: A request for sanitary public cuppings

Postby Marshall on Mon Oct 12, 2009 8:21 am

Jason Haeger wrote:It takes them out of their element, and coffee becomes something to take seriously. Coffee for the sake of coffee. It's something that no side-by-side french press tasting could ever accomplish.

Jason, my experience has been quite the opposite. I'm thinking in particular of side-by-side and one-after-the-other tastings conducted by Tim Castle in a North Hollywood backyard, Chuck Jones at his warehouse/roastery and Jon Gozbekian at LaMill. The guests, none of whom had previously taken coffee very seriously, were totally focused on the coffee, spoke intelligently about the flavors they experienced and commented on how much the experience had changed their view of coffee.
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Re: A request for sanitary public cuppings

Postby James Hoffmann on Mon Oct 12, 2009 10:36 am

I am another vote for the "No to cupping" camp.

I find conducting a large number of people through the "lite" version of cupping is actually as distracting as it is focusing.

Cupping, why and how we do it, and when in the chain, has been on my mind a lot recently. I think we probably need to have another look at it as an industry and decide what we really want it to be. I don't think anyone out there is approaching absolute consistency in their cupping setups (we dose every cup by weight from the Uber - which has made a fantastic difference, but doesn't quite get one all the way). Be it steep time, temperature, water dose or (as important as water temperature) cup temp - inconsistencies creep in. This is a bit OT though, and perhaps a good other discussion.

I think I agree with a lot of what Peter said, and also something he said somewhere else - that the big value in public cuppings is making people conscious of what they are tasting. Definitely huge value in that - this requires a good leader for the event, good coffees and the opportunity to taste them comparatively. The last point is really key - we all learned to cup based on comparative tastings. It is a relatively quick and easy way to develop your palate and sensory vocabulary.

I don't think comparative public tastings require cupping bowls, breaking crusts or cupping spoons. The goal of education, in my opinion, is to make coffee more enjoyable. Whether it turns them into a connoisseur or a customer or not - the education we give should make the coffee they drink more enjoyable through a better understanding of its nature.

Finally, and slightly off topic, I think we worry way too much about bacteria/germs etc. I don't think we do ourselves any good by constantly limiting our exposure to bad things. Again - another topic really.
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Re: A request for sanitary public cuppings

Postby Gabe Smentek on Mon Oct 12, 2009 12:53 pm

The public cuppings are just that. They are cuppings for the public, not us. The public cupping is about tasting different flavors present in a cup of coffee. It is also about letting the public into our world and see all of the steps that are taken when we get a particular coffee. We let them see the process we use that makes us fall in love with a particular coffee. Their eyes will open and they will appreciate their cup of coffee. That's what it is about. Granted, yeah, they can get some of the same experience when do a simple tasting, but the public cupping lets them into our world.

I'm getting a vibe that people don't like doing public cuppings because they are annoying or too much hard work to do. I wouldn't mind having a challenging hour or two trying to control a class if it opens someones eyes to the joy of coffee.
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Re: A request for sanitary public cuppings

Postby Marshall on Mon Oct 12, 2009 1:07 pm

Gabe Smentek wrote:I'm getting a vibe that people don't like doing public cuppings because they are annoying or too much hard work to do.

Gabe, There were many opinions expressed here, but, I'm pretty sure that wasn't one of them. :)
By the way, I enjoyed a great side-by-side brewed coffee demo that Oren and Genevieve conducted at the main Lexington shop several years ago (organized by La Frelkins).
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Re: A request for sanitary public cuppings

Postby Andy Sprenger on Sat Nov 21, 2009 12:01 pm

One great advantage to public cuppings is the customer's exposure to aromatics- from dry to crust to break. Aromatics quickly expose regional differences and build anticipation for what the coffee will taste like. We also find public cuppings to be a useful tool in delving more deeply into the attributes of coffee such as acidity, mouthfeel, balance etc.

If each participant has their own set of cups, rinse glass and spit cup, there's not much to worry about.
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Re: A request for sanitary public cuppings

Postby Chris Owens on Sat Nov 21, 2009 3:06 pm

Put me down as against public cuppings as well.
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Re: A request for sanitary public cuppings

Postby xristrettox on Sat Nov 21, 2009 7:50 pm

Not really into public cuppings as well.
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Re: A request for sanitary public cuppings

Postby tim on Wed Nov 25, 2009 11:58 pm

We love public cuppings because:
1. Customer gets educated
2. We sell more coffee

It is all in how you conduct it.
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Re: A request for sanitary public cuppings

Postby jpscoffee on Thu Nov 26, 2009 4:09 am

Yes to public tastings, no to public cuppings. We have done what I would call "industry-public" cuppings where we had newbie baristas and coffee shop employees (some of them very new and maybe not even that serious) go through a cupping. I feel at that point it is possible we may sway one or two of those high school/college/part-time barista/newbies into the coffee industry so it is much more worthwhile.
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Re: A request for sanitary public cuppings

Postby JackieBillings on Wed Feb 03, 2010 8:27 am

I am in general agreement with those who think that public cuppings are a waste of time and make people feel stupid... even the baristas at our cafe, who are more than happy to accurately extol the virtues of our Ethiopian Yirgacheffe to our customers, get silent if it is on the cupping table.

What we have done in the past is offered a four-week coffee appreciation class series (Every Saturday morning for a month). We charged a small fee to cover the cost of the class leader and materials and went over the basics of coffee tasting, coffee roasting, green coffee, coffee politics, etc. This class involved repeated production coffee tastings, culminating in a cupping on the final week, which involved coffees that we had recently cupped as part of a purchasing decision, so that we could then talk about how roasters make those decisions. We limited the class to 6 people and had really great results! The nominal fee weeded out the people who were in it for the free coffee, and we were able to offer a very comfortable and comprehensive educational experience to some of our customers who were genuinely interested in the specialty nature of our product.
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Re: A request for sanitary public cuppings

Postby jason dominy on Wed Mar 31, 2010 7:26 pm

I am for public cuppings for this reason: I've seen people "get" coffee in a way they've never done because of the methods and experience of the cupping process. I've held public cuppings for years, where I put out a coffee from each growing region, mixed them up, and did it blind. I told them about the places coffees are grown, and how the coffees will vary in taste according to where it's grown, altitude, weather, processing, etc. I give them general flavor notes they may look for, then I let them cup. They then try to match up the coffee with the growing region.

Inevitably, they "get it." They understand the nuances. Their senses are heightened because of the process, the focus on the coffee, the quietness of the room, the fact that they are totally concentrating on the coffee, and opening their senses. I have seen realtors, teachers, plumbers for Pete's sake, really understand coffee in a deeper way. Really appreciate the nuances of coffee based on where they're grown, or how they're processed. I've seen the value in training. I've seen only positive results.

Now, I will say this. When I cup, I give each person their own sample cups, own spoons, and it's as sanitary as it can get. Everyone that knows me knows I am all about making good coffee as accessible to people as possible. I am constantly thinking and asking myself, "How do we get this amazing coffee and story out to as many people as possible?" And a cupping is a great way for people to see and taste a difference vs. anything they've ever had. Not to mention the fact that they actually look for flavors and nuances in any coffee they drink from then on. And that's a good thing for all of us.
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Re: A request for sanitary public cuppings

Postby Tim Dominick on Thu Apr 01, 2010 9:09 am

It is easy to manage sanitary public cuppings for small groups. One set of cups per person and their own rinse cup. I think it gets hard when you start to have 6 or more people. It is easy to lose the group and get sidetracked into discussions that are largely irrelevant to the coffees on the table.

No reason to set up 3-5 cups per sample per person, they are not cupping for defects or to see consistency between cups.

I do think there is a limit to the value for most of the public who casually cup once. It is the people who come back the fourth, fifth, tenth time who really start to "get it" We have a core group who keep coming back. They bring an occasional friend for their first cupping and it helps us to hear the opinions of a true outsider.

I enjoy their feedback and since they also like to pick up a pound or two and leave me with beer, it works out great for me too.

Personally, I would like to see individual cuppings in the industry. When we gather from around the world I can't help but think the cups are a playground for all kinds of bugs.
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