Can you cup coffee when you have a cold? Should you cup coffee when you have a cold? The answer is yes and no, but perhaps not for the reasons you were imagining.
2014 greeted me with a nasty cold this year, and trying to drink some lovely Ethiopian coffee that I got from the shop down the street was a frustrating affair. I knew it tasted "good," but I couldn't quite tell why. It reminded me of the many times I or colleagues of mine have been forced to make a choice between cupping or not cupping when facing illness.
There's a grand irony in flying thousands of miles (often transfering through multiple airports in multiple continents) just to get somewhere to cup some coffee in a limited time. And when do we usually get a cold? Why, when we've been exposed to thousands of people from all over the world and then sealed up breathing the same air in a pressurized aluminum tube with them for 8 hours. Oh the joys! But when you only have 6 days to cup hundreds of coffees, and when you traveled 8,000 miles to do it... you find a way.
Is it possible?
First of all, strictly speaking, is it possible to cup coffee while you're sick? The answer is yes. (By "sick" in this article, I'm referring to a cold or flu that gives you congestion, a sore throat, or above all a stuffed-up nose... if you've suddenly contracted the Great Siberian Itch, I can't help you.)
You can cup coffee because your tongue is still presumably working. You have difficulty cupping coffee because your nose is all stuffed up. And as we all know (we do all know this, right everybody?) the olfactory component of sensory evaluation does the lion's share of the work. Without being able to smell things, your ability to perceive the overall flavor is deeply diminished.
But it's not completely eliminated. It's important to note that even when you are "totally" stopped up, you're usually still capable of smelling at a diminished level. If you don't believe me, try inhaling deeply from a rose bud or other intense, floral scent the next time you have a cold. You might be surprised to find just how well you can still smell it. Nevertheless, it is generally true that you can't smell nearly as well as you can when you're 100% healthy.
Beyond your temporarily damaged ability to smell, you still have your ability to taste using your tongue. You can still discern sweetness, acidity, and especially body and mouthfeel. In fact, cupping coffee while sick can be a great way to force yourself to focus on body and mouthfeel, which is a category that most cuppers have difficulty evaluating consistently (I know it was difficult for me).
So yes, you can cup when you're sick.
Should you do it?
Should you cup when you're sick? This is a different question altogether. The answer is yes. And no.
If you can put off an important evaluation until after your E.N.T. gives you a clean bill, by all means, wait until the sun is shining again. But that's often not possible.
For example, if the coffee is already roasted, and you're just starting to get sick, it could be a week before your nose is clear, by which time the coffee has staled significantly. That's a bit of a catch-22, but I'd err on the side of fresher coffee. Just do the best you can.
As I said above, many times I've been in situations where there's a time constraint. It would be nice to wait a while, but it's just not possible.
The really important thing when it comes to cupping coffee when you're sick is to be honest about it — honest with others and honest with yourself. And that leads us to...
How should you cup coffee when you're sick?
There are two key considerations; two things you need to ask yourself if you are going to cup coffee effectively when you're sick:
1) How will my sickness affect my fellow cuppers?
2) How will my sickness affect my evaluation of the coffee?
1) When you are cupping alone, you obviously don't have to worry about how your illness affects others. But in a group, it's important to be up-front about your condition. If anyone asks you to leave, you should. However, I've found that if you forthrightly explain what's going on, downplay the seriousness of it (assuming, of course, that it is indeed not serious), and come with a plan of action, most professionals are fine with sharing the room. After all, they've all been in the same situation at one time or another.
If there are enough cups on the table and you are not following strict competition protocols, you can designate one of the cups at each station as your personal cup. Make it the same cup for each sample, and make sure that everyone knows it's the "sick" cup. Then take samples only from this one cup; no one else should taste from this cup. If possible, try to get your own cup of water for cleaning your spoon too and don't share this one either.
If pushing off one cup to the side as the "sick cup" is impractical, simply wait for all other cuppers to pass through at least twice, then designate a "sick cup" and cup from that one. You won't be able to try the coffee when it's hot, but as we all know that's not the most important phase anyway.
Finally, if even that would prove to be too distracting, simply wait for all other cuppers to finish completely, then have at it.
2) It's very important to be honest with yourself when you're cupping — sick or healthy. If you can't discern something, do not just make it up.
I often teach my students to just write something, anything, even when they have no idea what to write because this tends to loosen them up and helps them to learn the process of tasting and notating. But eventually you have to grow out of this phase, and if you are still writing wild guesses in a professional environment and presenting them later as "cupping notes", you're not a good cupper. You're anti-good.
Likewise, when you're sick, despite my encouragements above (You can still taste with your tongue! You can kinda smell stuff, kinda), a lot of what you come up with might be less-than-usually accurate. Just be honest with yourself about it. Make a note on your cupping forms or later reports that these notes are sketchy at best.
Again, you can use your sickness as a blessing in disguise and focus in on non-aromatic components of the coffee, specifically acidity and mouthfeel. If you have ever had trouble grading these aspects accurately, getting a cold is the perfect time to hone your skills.
If at all possible, of course, you should cup the same coffees again when you're at full strength. This can be one more good exercise for learning, too. Make sure to randomize and encode the samples, cup them all again when you're feeling tip-top, then decode and reveal and find how well your "sick notes" match up with your "healthy notes." There's always something new to learn about the coffee, and about your own evaluation skills.
Just dive in.
Always take care of your health first, and always be mindful of the well-being of those around you. But if you take sensible precautions and remember not to treat your own notes too seriously, I encourage every coffee professional to keep tasting even when it feels like your sinuses are stuffed with cotton.
Basically, you should never be turning down an opportunity to hone your skills and broaden your knowledge. Getting sick is less than ideal for many reasons, but it's part of life, and it can lead to some pretty interesting situations if you know how to look at it from the right angle.
In late June, I was in Antioquia, a large department of Colombia. Antioquia (the Spanish version of the name of Antioch, an ancient Anatolian city known for its holy hand grenades), is not as well known in specialty circles as some other areas of Colombia, such as Cauca and Huila.
However, the total arabica production there is huge. If Antioquia were its own country, it would export more coffee than the entire nation of Costa Rica! And a lot of that coffee, naturally, is very high quality. They have stupendous altitude... in many places you have to go down from the roads and towns to get to the coffee growing zone; and they have expertise, varietals, soil, and everything else to produce great coffee.
Here are some pictures from my trip. It's "fly crop" season in Colombia right now. That means that most fields are not in production, or only with very low volumes, but that there is still some fresh coffee being picked and processed in some areas. Most of the volume in this area is harvested in November and December.
Typical street in Medellín, the beautiful capital of Antioquia
Lunch in the mountains
The mountains around Montebello
The reliquary of a 350 year old church; the oldest one in the region
Parque Botero in Medellín
Coffee: defects, sorted, and unsorted. (I brought about 3 pounds of pure defects back with me for training purposes... it's amazing how much they stunk up my suitcase!)
Cappuccino at Café Pergamino in Medellín
Mountain village of Jardín
I expect to be back in Colombia again soon. We cupped a lot of coffees while I was there, as part of a cup-profiling activity that is ongoing. There were some very good profiles we encountered: some real surprises to go along with some real classic Colombian profiles. The country is so beautiful, the people are so nice, and it's so big with so much to explore, I can't wait to go back.
My friend and former colleague (at Intelligentsia), Steve Mierisch has been in contact lately about his family's farms' coffees in Honduras and Nicaragua.
Coming up on April 25th, they are holding an auction for these coffees. The Mierisches are working with the Alliance for Coffee Excellence, who own the Cup of Excellence auction system, the best known and most elite coffee auction program in the world. This is the first time that ACE has put on a private coffee auction program.
I've had many of Steve's family's coffees before, and they are excellent quality. What's really interesting here to me is seeing producers take it on themselves to make direct sales to their clients. In order to do this, you have to have high quality, you have to be extremely organized, and you have to have a ton of initiative. However, if things go well, I imagine that a successful auction will allow the family to continue investing in their own land and improving quality. That should be the model for as many producers as possible. This auction is exciting for that reason.
The Mierisches are not the first private producers to hold an internet auction, but it's still extremely rare and this bears watching, not least for the involvement of ACE.
Interested buyers can sign up for the auction here.
In the last five years I have traveled to origin 30 times, to the best of my recollection. That's about 6 trips a year, spread over 12 or 13 countries, mostly in Latin America, but also in Africa and Asia.
On all but one of those trips, I have taken the same pair of shoes. Not the same brand, no... the exact same pair of shoes. These shoes set me back about 65 bucks, if I recall. I've worn them in Ethiopia, Puerto Rico, Honduras, Panama, Peru, El Salvador, the Philippines, etc.
The one time I didn't bring these shoes, it was purely by accident. It was my first trip to the Philippines, and I was apparently so excited by the prospect of white sand beaches that I forgot to pack sensible coffee farm shoes. Ironic because some of the roughest terrain I've encountered in my coffee travels was on that trip, in the tribal lands of Mindanao. I had to hike the whole slippery mess in thin-soled tennis shoes. My friends showed me infinite patience as I fumbled around helplessly in the muck and mire. (Hi Zee!)
Anyway, I come from Seattle originally, where people wear mountain-climbing gear to formal events. It's actually become a point of pride for me to wear snazzy city shoes whenever possible, just to stand out from the NorthFace and New Balance. But when you're hiking a real, functioning coffee farm at the peak of harvest, style somehow takes a back seat.
The shoes I have are from ECCO. I think they might have discontinued the exact model I have. They're somewhat similar to these, but low top and less space-age looking. I like the ones I have because if you dust them off and spit-shine 'em, they don't look too bad in a city setting. But the main reason I like them is because they are as tough as nails, but very comfortable. I've abused the ever-living hell out of these shoes and never once replaced the laces or even thought about them. I just toss them in my bag when I'm headed to origin and then inflict the pain.
Here's a mash-up video of my most recent trip to Ethiopia and a trip I made to Honduras in 2011. In the first part (grainy, sorry) I am stepping on a rural road between two farms, on my way up to the waterfall at Wondo Genet in Sidamo. I started filming because I was amazed at the thin crust that overlaid the two inches of powder-thin red dust that made up the road. It felt like walking on the moon, except it was about 100 degrees and the sun was BRUTAL. In the second part, as you can tell from the angle of my legs, I'm stumbling down a very steep, very muddy and slippery hillside in Honduras. Same shoes, two years and half a world apart.
So anyway, I don't work for ECCO and they aren't giving me any money. But if you are heading to a coffee farm soon (and if you're not.. why not???), maybe check out some of these shoes.
Here's my pair in all their dusty glory after I got back from my most recent trip last week:
Greetings from the Motherland. I'm in Ethiopia now, preparing for the Taste of Harvest competition and all kinds of cupping activities that are happening before and after. I'm getting an up close and personal view of how this year's crop is; I will share some general impressions once I hit the cupping tables early next week. For now I am just fighting off the jet lag and indulging in some injera and chickina tibs.
I promised pictures and videos from Brazil and the Philippines, but of course all the big files are back at home on my big computer. I travel lean and mean, data-wise. Got to have plenty of storage room for all the photos of farm visits in Jimma and Sidamo later on this trip. So that will have to wait until I return, unless I can dig up a few things in the corners of my smartphone, or from friends that were on those trips with me.
Ethiopia is such a lovely country; it's been a couple years since I have had the privilege to visit. Even the somewhat dirty chaos of Addis Ababa is charming, and that pales next to the stunning countryside vistas in the coffee lands. The sun is so powerful during the day, but the air is almost crisp, and it never gets that hot thanks to the mile-high altitude. The sounds and smells here are so unique: driving on the way to a meeting today, I detected a familiar scent, that of "mitmitta", an unmistakeable spice mix used in cooking here. I commented and the taxi driver just laughed and nodded and said, "That's Ethiopia."
That's Ethiopia indeed. Just some cultural musings for now. I'll have more to say about the coffee when the rubber hits the road next week.
Happy New Year. I have been in the specialty coffee industry for over ten years now, and I can honestly say that every single year has been better than the year before, both for me professionally and, more importantly, for the industry as a whole.
Not everything is perfect all the time, of course. Sometimes we uncover new problems just as we think we are solving an old one. For years we bemoaned the low price of commodity coffee. Then it shot through the roof in a matter of months, and suddenly we were wondering if this industry was sustainable anymore. But crises are just opportunities. High costs, for example, just highlighted the need for increased efficiency and more resourceful practices.
The past year took me all over the world again, gracias a Diós, as they say in lands to the south: I had the chance to make coffee trips to Panama, Honduras, the Philippines, and Brazil. Not to mention the exotic, far-off land of Portlandia; my second-home New York City, and always-gorgeous San Francisco. In the coming year, I hope to make it back to Central America, to spend some quality time in Colombia, several weeks in the MOTHERLAND (Ethiopia, of course), get some real development work off the ground in the Philippines, and of course teach more courses in San Francisco.
Before my next trip, I'll be getting caught up right here on the blog with a few more articles, some picture and video posts, and whatever else coffee-centric that comes my way.In the meantime, from the chilly, dark, and crisp Pacific Northwest, here's hoping that 2013 brings you more wonderful coffee moments than ever before.
These are some of the most common mistakes I have seen in cupping labs in my career. These are the problems that pop up again and again. Even when you warn people to prepare for the problem, they often underestimate the problem.
These are concerns for you to address whether you are setting up a one-time cupping on the road, or whether you are building out or improving your own permanent lab.
I have a friend who is a professional taste-tester and product-tester. She works in all kinds of foods, like crackers, chocolate, wine, TV-dinners, soft drinks, and yes, even coffee. A few years back she was in charge of training some experts for a panel she was putting together.
To test her subjects, she put together a little trick, making cherry gelatin with yellow coloring. When she served the yellow gelatin to the panel and asked them to write down what flavor it was, most of the tasters wrote "lemon," a couple wrote "banana," and only one of them wrote "cherry."
Think this is a one-time incident? Check this out:
In France, a decade ago a wine researcher named Fréderic Brochet served 57 French wine experts two identical midrange Bordeaux wines, one in an expensive Grand Cru bottle, the other accommodated in the bottle of a cheap table wine. The gurus showed a significant preference for the Grand Cru bottle, employing adjectives like "excellent" more often for the Grand Cru, and "unbalanced," and "flat" more often for the table wine. — Wall Street Journal
If you think you are immune to this effect, you're wrong. No one is immune. If you know ahead of time what you are tasting, your opinion will be influenced by your preconceptions.
And yet, people still put together coffee cuppings ignoring this principle. It's okay to do an open cupping if it's just for fun, obviously. But if you are seriously trying to get useable data from your cupping, IT MUST BE BLIND.
There is no way around this. And no, you are not an exception to this rule.
Just to be clear what I mean by "blind": the identity of each coffee should be hidden to as great a degree as possible. Most times, of course, you will know you are cupping 20 Panamas, or 8 coffees from the same roaster, or whatever. This level of knowledge if usually unavoidable. But you should have no idea which is which. To achieve this level of ignorance, use codes for each coffee and make sure to order them randomly.
Ideally, you won't even know what category of coffee you are tasting. That's always the most interesting. But it's pretty rare to not have at least some idea what the category is.
The easiest way to make a cupping blind is, of course, to have most or all of the cuppers out of the room when the organizer sets up the cupping and gives the coffees a code. But many times you will be the one who is setting things up and at the same time you are the one hoping to do some evaluation.
There's a simple way to get around this. Just double-code the coffee. Imagine I am setting up a cupping with one other friend, and we both want to score blind. I will write down one set of codes. So a coffee from the farm "Finca Alfa" becomes 001 and "Finca Beta" becomes 002, etc.
Then I leave the area and my colleague comes in and re-codes the samples. "001" becomes "282" or some other random number. "002" becomes "991" etc. She makes sure to mix the order of the coffees.
When I come back in, I have no idea what is what, and neither does she, since she never saw the original list. We both cup completely blind and our data is therefore much more reliable. Then, at the end, we trace back through our double-code and re-establish the identity of each coffee. Easy peasy.
If you are not doing this, you might be having fun cupping, but you're not learning anything about your coffee.
Incidentally, I have noticed that 99% of all espresso-tasting that goes on in the specialty coffee world isn't even remotely blind. Everyone who tastes the different espressos knows exactly what he or she is tasting. Why people think this is a maximal way to evaluate their products is beyond me. (In order for it to be even half-way useful, the taster would have to be someone other than the barista, and he or she would have to be sitting somewhere away from the espresso machine so as not to have any hints about what's going on. Really you need at minimum three people: one barista, one "server" to act as liaison, and one taster... ideally you should have several tasters). This is really a topic for another post as espresso-tasting presents unique difficulties.
But in straight cupping it's very simple and straightforward. If you are not doing it blind, you're not really doing it! So now, are you a professional, or aren't you?
I got the chance to play around on a cool new sample roaster today. The machine is manufactured by Taehwan, in Korea. The brand name is the Proaster.
Proaster had a shop roaster up and running at the Roaster's Guild retreat in Oregon last week. They already offer larger batch roasters. This week they paid a visit to Boot Coffee in California and helped install this two-barrel sample roaster.
Good-looking machine. It took only a couple of hours to hook up the gas and electricity. The machine is surprisingly light, but as you can see below, the actual machining and manufacturing is high-quality. Below you can see the interior of the machine, viewed from behind with the back panel taken off.
The batch capacity for each barrel is anywhere from 100 grams to 200 grams. That's a good size for sample roasting, as you typically receive 300 or 350 grams per sample from a producer or importer.
We had a bit of trouble calibrating the thermocouples exactly, but that's hardly a surprise considering the thing was shipped all the way from Korea. In general, it was a pleasant experience roasting on this machine. Even the "bad" batch of coffee (the first roast we tried, with miscalibrated temperature readings, which went too fast overall) turned out with a nice flavor in the cup.
Many roasters who are just starting up their businesses agonize over how to deal with sample roasting. A shop roaster can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Few companies can afford to invest another $8,000 - $15,000 on a sample roaster. The Proaster sample roaster is priced significantly lower (though still not cheap!) and so far the results have been very nice. Of course, it will take more time to reach a completely-informed opinion. But so far, so good!
Sometimes it's the little things that can make a difference. This machine has an innovative design for the doors that allow for discharging the beans. When the machine is empty, you can look inside and see the interior design of the drum. Pretty cool.
We turned some students loose on this machine, just throwing them into the deep end of the pool, and (smart people) they were able to come up with some pretty well-developed sample roasts right off the bat.
You're focused in on the coffee, you're about to write something brilliant on your cupping form. You're reaching for your pencil as you tuck your head to the side and spit into your cup. Boom. Plastic nasty reek. You've lost the brilliance.
I have set up hundreds of cuppings in over fifty different venues (I lost count somewhere), in ten different countries, from New York City to to mountains of Harar, Ethiopia. There have been cuppings in fancy restaurants, inside of tents, in world class laboratories, and hooked up to a car battery. Every situation is different and probably none is ideal. But there are certain recurring themes.
A friend recently asked me to write up a list for putting together his cupping lab. I wrote my "dream list", in which money and scarcity was no object. It was kind of fun, actually.
Rather than go through an entire list here on this blog, I am going to share with you a few of the most common problems that I've encountered in my career. These are the problems that pop up again and again. Even when you warn people to prepare for the problem, they often underestimate the problem.
These are concerns for you to address whether you are setting up a one-time cupping on the road, or whether you are building out or improving your own permanent lab.
Spit cups are an afterthought. It's often the last thing you need in your cupping lab before you're ready to go. In many cultures it's common to use spittoons, and if you have an old-school rotating table top with chairs and sinks, you can spit in the sinks. But most cuppers in North America, and most cupping situations on the road, call for individual spit cups to be held by the cuppers.
These can be disposable cups, or ones you wash and use again. In either case, it's crucial that they don't have a strong smell — Ideally they don't have any smell at all.
For disposable cups, I prefer paper cups, the kind that most coffee shops use for "to-go" coffee. They actually do have a bit of a smell to them, but it's really only activated with hot liquid (the famous paper-cup smell that all to-go coffee takes on). If you are just spitting into the cup, it's not noticeable enough for it to be distracting.
Plastic cups can work too, but clear plastic cups are pretty gross because the slimy stuff inside is visible to all.
Some places use metal cups. Finished stainless steel works well (though they make a loud noise when you spit in them!). What's worse is tin cups or other rough metals. Not only do these cups have their own metallic smell, they tend to pick up the smell of used coffee around the interior surface, which can be quite distracting.
The worst is cheap plastic. This doesn't clean off very well and they tend to develop a stale, almost dishwater-like aroma after a few washes in hot water. It's the plastic smell of clean (unused) disposable diapers, or band-aids. Highly distracting for cuppers.
In the lab I cup in most often, we use large plastic cups. It's a high-grade plastic that doesn't melt or pick up odors. The cups are large and sturdy, unlikely to tip over, but still narrow enough to hold comfortably. As an added bonus, we have several colors of cup, so that people are less likely to get their cups confused when they set them down for whatever reason.
Any time I cup, especially in new situations, as soon as I get my spit cup in hand, I stick my nose into the clean, empty cup and take a deep whiff. If there's any lingering odor there, I want to notice it right away and get accustomed to it, so that I'm less distracted by it during the cupping.
Of course, it's much better when I take that inhale and find that there's no odor at all! Then I can concentrate all my powers of olfaction where they belong: on the coffee.