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.
In this series: Common Cupping Mistakes — Hot Water!
In this series: Common Cupping Mistakes — Smelly Cups
In this series: Common Cupping Mistakes — Not Really Blind