The Lonely Cupper

A year of cupping with COVID. To be clear, I do not have, nor have I had COVID-19 (knock on wood). Its existence, however, has loomed ever-presently over the cupping table since rumors about this strange new virus began to emanate out of Wuhan in late 2019. The invisible nature by which it spreads, along with a lack of information as to its long-term effects has led to a virtual revolution of industry-wide changes in process and protocol. The SCA issued new guidelines for a “COVID-friendly” cupping format in March, 2020 involving individual shot glasses, never touching spoons to mouths, and plenty of rinsing. While these recommendations are good at reducing the risk of transmission via swapped saliva, they fail to address what has been shown over the last year to be the single largest contributing factor in the prolific spread of COVID-19: the air. As science has shown us, this virus is rather adept at airborne travel and can survive for several hours in the ambient environment. In order to ensure the safety of our co-workers and families while performing the most important daily functions that keep our wheels turning, we at Cooperative Coffees made the decision to begin work-at-home measures for all staff, including yours truly… the lonely cupper.

Setting up a home lab may seem like a daunting task, but it turned out to be much easier than expected. The first step was figuring out how to roast at home. After toying with the idea of bringing our 2-barrel Probat sample roaster home with me, our General Manager, Ed Canty, had a better idea: why not try out an Ikawa. These roasters are essentially built for home and small labs, taking up less than a square foot of space and operating on standard 110v electricity. Lucky for us Equator Coffee, a nearby member of Cooperative Coffees, was kind enough to loan us their Ikawa so that I could run some tests and make sure the roast profile would be on par with what we’re used to getting from the Probat. After a satisfactory round of testing, we decided the Ikawa would meet our needs just fine and away we went. Producers began sending samples directly to my door, landed samples from the warehou se would now be sent straight to me, I brought home tools for measuring moisture, water activity and density and my kitchen officially became a laboratory. After a few months with the borrowed Ikawa, we went a step further and purchased one for the coop, making it the centerpiece of our new roast-from-home directive. The process now goes something like this: a preship or landed sample arrives at my door, I thank the delivery person (at a distance), bring it inside, dispose of the outer packaging, wash my hands and get to work. I can roast, grade, measure, and cup as usual right from my kitchen. It’s quick, efficient and safe.

Now, you might ask, “How do you stay calibrated?” or “What if there’s a quality issue, shouldn’t it be verified by a second opinion?” Well, I’m very glad you brought these up. A key component in our ability to relocate the lab is our web-based cupping platform. Built right into GORP (the online nerve center of our organization) we are able to cup from any location and track that information within our system. I can check cup reports of coffees from the same producers over the last several years to see how I’m scoring now versus then. If an issue arises where I may need a second cupper to verify my findings, I can simply roast up a little extra coffee, drop it off with Sourcing Manager, Felipe Gurdian, or mail it to an experienced coop member, and they can cup remotely using our platform. The results will be fed into our system in real-time and can be compared against mine. It’s a wonderfully simple solution that allows us to cup together in a virtual (and covid-free) space.

Speaking of the online cupping platform, the possibilities are really limitless. This spring, our Sourcing and Quality Committee (SAQ) is planning an event to truly test its capabilities. For those unfamiliar, the SAQ is one of many committees within our cooperative where members are encouraged to actively shape policy and guide the work we do. This April, we will be hosting a virtual producer exchange in which the same samples will be sent to participating members, producer partners and staff throughout the globe. With the power of this technology, we’ll be able to cup together across great distances in both Spanish and English, share results in real-time, and foster important discussions all from the comfort of our own homes (or safely isolated in our labs). Though we may not be able to have the in-person kind of contact and conversations for the time being, we are at least able to connect in meaningful ways and carry on with our work while remaining healthy. There’s potential for expanding this beyond the SAQ event too. If time, budget and interest allow, we could regularly cup the same coffees within the coop or with producers, working toward greater calibration between staff, members and producer partners.

A year into working from home, I’ve grown quite fond of some of its benefits though I still miss many aspects of cupping in groups. The immediate feedback after finishing a table, or the subtle gestures and nods of approval (or disappointment) that often occur when cupping with others make for a more immersive and social experience. On the other hand, cupping alone removes any distraction or outside influence allowing me greater focus on the smaller details.

One shining star in these tumultuous times has truly been our Ikawa roaster. Its ease of use, consistency and repeatability have not only made this transition possible, they’ve made it down-right pleasant. I’ll admit, I was a skeptic at first and I still wish they could scale up to allow for a larger roasting capacity, but the last year has made me a happy Ikawa convert.

As we move into a second year of uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 crisis, I hope we continue to find more ways in which we stay connected and calibrated. Even after the rollout of vaccinations, international travel and in-person meetings will likely remain difficult for some time. By connecting virtually with both producers and coop members, we’re able to keep the dialogue open and forge the relationships that are necessary for us to do the kind of work we are most passionate about: business with a big heart. In the face of what may well be the new normal, and given the ever-improving technology in our hands, may we all be a little less lonely at the cupping table.

Lucy, my lab assistant – low work ethic but full of love!

Matt Damron, Quality Manager
March 16, 2021