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Could COVID-19 Put an End to Public Cuppings?

coffee cupping

A public cupping with shared rinse bowls. Daily Coffee News file photo.

As the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has been capturing headlines worldwide, the Specialty Coffee Association last week announced a series of new hygiene practices to be implemented at upcoming coffee trade shows in Portland (Oregon), Melbourne, and Warsaw.

Among these is a “modified” SCA cupping protocol to include “an individual shot glass” for each participant. This practice, which is not new to the industry, is often referred to as the indirect method. The idea is that, with the addition of another vessel, the cupper’s spoon never touches their lips.

The unspoken concern here is that cuppings are generally a little gross and irrefutably unsanitary, truths that are amplified in large-format public cuppings. It doesn’t take a germaphobe to recognize the infection possibilities presented by a lukewarm glass of water shared by a bunch of strangers.

The SCA has taken a first, tentative step towards a remedy, and I think that it’s great that they’re thinking about this before someone shows up to cup at the Expo with an infectious disease, rather than after.

However, the indirect cupping method has flaws of its own. It’s an incredibly inefficient way to cup, and an imperfect measure for preventing the spread of viral infection.

end of coffee cupping

Daily Coffee News file photo.

For starters, cupping begins with smelling the grounds, and doing so requires close proximity of the cupper’s nose to the glass. If multiple cuppers are in attendance, airborne transmission of pathogens is almost guaranteed at this stage, well before water ever hits the grounds. I won’t even address how disgusting and unsanitary the idea is of replacing individual spittoons with floor spittoons.

Secondly, indirect cupping makes cupping even more complicated to physically and mentally coordinate. A cupper must manage a spoon, a spittoon, and a cupping form with just two hands; navigate a table of perhaps 30-50 individual cups without cross-contaminating; and manage to focus on nuanced and sensory ephemera.

Adding another thing to hold, plus an additional activity of correctly spooning coffee into a glass (or second spoon) without risking contamination is simply a lot to coordinate, if not also arguably ableist. 

There are some safeguards and solutions to minimize exposure when cupping:

  1. First and foremost, it’s incredibly rude and thoroughly unhealthy for everyone if you cup when sick, even when using the indirect method. Don’t do it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve cupped at a table with someone who’s tried the indirect method or claimed it’s “just allergies” or pretended it wasn’t problematic, only to find myself suffering their symptoms the next day.
  2. Wash your hands; don’t touch your face; empty your spittoon frequently so it doesn’t splash; rinse your spoon completely before and after you use it each time; refresh rinse water frequently and right-off-the-boil. None of these will prevent the spread of disease completely, but they are the least you can do.
  3. Don’t cup with strangers. Keep a tight cupping team of people you can trust and with whom you agree on best practices. 

If you must taste coffee in large groups, here are some reasonable precautions:

  1. Don’t cup. Batch brew or make pourovers, but don’t share anything other than the experience. Get your own cup, and have a designated area for bussing dirty dishes. This is the easiest and most elegant solution. Although it is buried under some bullet points, the SCA has acknowledged this alternative, saying, “For those who wish to avoid cuppings, batch brewers can be made available upon request.” I’ve been using this for groups at The Crown for our regular Friday afternoon coffee tastings, and it’s thoroughly rewarding and completely sanitary. You can still talk about sweetness, acidity, and body, and rattle off a dozen flavor notes without sharing everyone’s germs. It’s so easy.
  2. Use a new spoon each time. Counter Culture has been using this technique at their public coffee tasting events, and while it requires a lot of spoons, it’s a slightly improved technique to the indirect method. While it still requires some coordination and relies on people to be precise and consistent — characteristics humans tend to struggle with — it has the advantage of not requiring either an extra appendage or communal spittoon, which I think everyone can appreciate.
  3. Set each attendee up with their own personal cupping. I’ve done this a handful of times with new cuppers to help them learn the technique, and I highly recommend it if you can spare the glassware and have enough roasted coffee. For the uninitiated, the cupping process is often challenging and intimidating, and having a personal station removes a lot of performance pressure. Cuppers can proceed at their own pace, make a mistake or two, and taste everything the coffee has to offer without interfering in anyone else’s experience.

I don’t wish to be alarmist, nor do I consider myself to be particularly germaphobic. But if the coronavirus can catalyze a little introspection into hygienic practices while cupping, I’m all for it.

There’s no better time than now to consider the public health consequences of cupping, and there’s no reason we can’t enjoy a collective and valuable coffee analysis experience without putting those around us at risk of illness.


Editor’s note: Any opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the author/s and do not necessarily represent the views of the Daily Coffee News or its management.

Comment

5 Comments

K.C. O’Keefe

Hey Chris, Thanks for brining up the topic. We literally just finished two competitions in Colombia with the SCA Community Cupping protocol and it worked! 25 cuppers in Best of Antioquia, and 30 in the Best of Cauca; 40 samples in each competition. . . And everyone logged their results directly into Cropster Cup (another device in hand). Cumbersome? Maybe . . . It does take some getting used to, but its functional. And lets be honest learning the cupping ritual was foreign to all of us . . . in what other setting are we trained to wield a spoon, rapidly dip it into cups and spit like machine guns? So the double cup method in my opinion just requires the time and persistence to re-learn some muscle memory.
And there were some unexpected positive results. Cuppers took less slurps and focused more on the brew in their mouth each time. Uncle Geoff Watts has long preached to us the need to slow down and concentrate while cupping. The double cup method unexpectedly requires that of us. Some times I find myself slurping and spitting with out thinking, similarly to reading a page and then having no recollection of what I just read. And in a competition where all the coffees had been vetted by at least three panels before hand it begs the question of how necessary it is to line out 5 cups to check for consistency? Perhaps the machine gun dozen cup sample cupping needs to be left to our buying labs . . . freeing up community cuppings (and competition cuppings) to just focus on the taste of the coffee?

Tionico

this is all fine -and dandy, but what it totally misses is the REAL tarnsmission mechanism for viral infections such as COVID, MERS, SARS, H1N1, H1N9 Ebolal Zika, and all the other panic inducing “nothing to not much of anything” burgers we’ve had traipse through the media panicmongers in the past two decades. I think I”ve missed a few, too…..

I have yet to participate in ANY cupping anywhere in which I have not spend considerable time within seven feet of each of the other participants in the group, and NONE of us wearing surgican masks as we slurped and tasted and spitted. That seven feet/two metres is the “danger zone’ for rapid person to person transmission via droplets. We ALL exhale, frequently, AS we exhale, breahth is released, and beath ALWAYS contains droplets. In people with respiratory viral infections, those viral organisms ARE present in the droplets.

SO, guess what? “We’re all DOOOOOOOMED” I tell you ALL of us……. Consider our motions as we mill about the room, tables, bins of green, roasted whole, ground, set, steeping, break, sniffing, and it will become obvious that the spoon-dipping-slurping-spitting operations likely present the least opportunity for exposure. (in college years back I had four years of pre-med biology, immunology, lab practices, microbiology, disease transmission, cultire production, etc, so I might not have forgotten everything from back then)

By far the safest tasting protocol I’ve can think of IS the small batch brewing, whether using an automatic machine, chemex, french press, etc, ) then having each taster simply present their own cup to sample each separate coffee in turn, emptying the cup, perhaps a quick rinse in CLEAN hot water to purge the last coffee, dumping that into a receptacle from which no one else will consume anything. In my place I never set up and perform the standard SCA cupping protocol.. I simply brew every coffee in my own standard preferred method (same each time, it is MY protocol but replicated every time) and then taste the coffee….. any way I want to, at any or all points along the cooling path. I KNOW what is in that coffee once I’ve done that. And that’s all I need.

Trust me, the spoon aspect of a cupping session is the LEAST likely means of transmission in the entire ritual.

But my REAL question is this: WHY all the global panic and kneejerk responses to a disease that is, when compared to all the OTHER “its gonna kill us all” diseases we’ve seen over the past two decades runs, in respet to numbers infectd, and deaths per thousand cases, anywhere from one fifteenth (MERS) to about the same (seasonal flu), and anywhere in between compared to SARS, Zika, H1N1, H1N9, measles, or anything else? THEN consider that tjose most susceptible to COVID are those already compromised with pneumpnia,Tuberculosis, or other serious bacterial respiratory conditions, and/or seriosuly compromised immunodeficiency conditions, including cancer,.

Take your vitamin D (minimum maintenance daily dose of 5000 IU) and C (minimum maintenance daily dose of two mg caps twice per day), this per any of the many qualified MD’s commenting on the disease.

Greg

i hate to say this but

1. all coffee shops should close … take the lead
until testing at high volumes can help guide us to the best decision
2. Look at Italy, Spain and France …. hanging in public places is disasterous’
3. It is spread by your breath as well
4. The Coronvirus will cause more than deaths,,,, there will be long term disabilities associated with this disease,,,, suppose your 24 year old employee gets the virus at work and now could face a life time of disabilities.
5. Your personnel could infect others who may get sick very sick or die!

yes to home roasting!!!

err on the side of caution

Tionico

2. Look at Italy, Spain and France …. hanging in public places is disasterous’

Yes, DO look at those places, carefully. Look particularly at the SECTORS of their populations which are sucumbing to this disease. Pay attention to the specific demographics and lifestyle choices the affected have adopted.
Wou;d you compare the population of 95% of the uS to the homeless poplyation on the West Coast? Not at all VERY different situations. Not relevant at all to mainstream US population. Thus the risk factors are a fraction of one percent compared to the specific populations in those places.

3. It is spread by your breath as well

yes it IS spread mainly by the tiny droplets we exhale.. so if you have the least hint you are not well, wear a mask that will capture the droplets. Simple. And stay away from others.\

4. The Coronvirus will cause more than deaths,,,, there will be long term disabilities associated with this disease,,,,

I have been studying this closely sinde it firwt began to break, and ha=ve seen NO suggestion this is occurring. People who become symptomatic either recover fully in a relatively short time, or succumb to it after a long battle. The ones that succumg to it have, at VERY high rates, underlying serious health issues already. Nearly all who are infected and die, do not die from the virus, but from the pneumonia that sets in once their system becomes too weak to combat it. Few in that situation are treated with appropriate antibiotics, to deal with the pneumonis, or in many cases the tuberculosis.

suppose your 24 year old employee gets the virus at work and now could face a life time of disabilities.

A reasonably healthy 24 year old is in the category of individuals least likely to contract this disease. In Wuhan City, as of a week ago, (by then the course of this epidemic was fairly mature, new cases were dropping in frequency at a rapid rate) deaths among 16 up to 35 were at .06% of those who had contracted the disease AND presented with symptoms, I do not have demographic figures for total number of people in this age group, but it runs in the millions based on total population. Thus the chances of your hypothetical 24 year old employee conrtracting this disease are statisitally less than the chances of that same person dying by becoming tangled in their own bedsheets at home. In other words, statistically near vanishing.

5. Your personnel could infect others who may get sick very sick or die!

Same thing COULD happen if that same employee were buying fuel, groceries, out walking of an evening, walking into the mall to draw money out of their ATM, getting a tyre changed…

And in ALL of the press about how fearful we all must become, I have seen a total of less than a dozen articles addressing the underlying issue with this diseae. This whole thin g is NOT an issue of exposure to the virus. No, not at all. It is an issue of weakened immune systems.. due to poor diet, lack of exercise, lack of proper supplementation to strengthen the immune system to fight it off…. educate yourself in this area of self-care, and quit worrying. A healthy immune system WILL defeat this thing. And its easy to do. Closing a coffee shop wont prevent anyone from getting it… take adquate care of YOUR OWN immune system and no matter HOW many times yuo are exposed, you will not ever become symptomatic.

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