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.
Specialty Coffee Association of America