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.
Cupping Mistake #1: NOT ENOUGH HOT WATER!
Far and away the biggest problem I've run across is not enough hot water. There are only two ingredients that go into a cupping bowl: coffee and hot water. No one ever seems to forget the coffee. Remarkable how often the hot water gets neglected.
Not totally neglected, of course. People bring stoves and electric kettles. But they underestimate how much water they are going to need.
Gas stoves can be remarkably slow, especially if you are heating extra large kettles. If you do more than one table in a row, be prepared to have a longer-than-desired delay between sets. I actually prefer using gas stoves and nice, metal kettles like the one in the picture here. Another potential problem with them is that they don't often have a stated capacity written on them. Put some cold water in the kettle and get out one of your cupping bowls, and see how many times you can fill up the bowl with one kettle. Even though the water will expand a bit when it's hot and even though there will also of course be coffee in the cups when you "go live," this exercise gives you a good rough idea of how much water you can heat at one time. Multiply your result by the number of kettles you have, and you know how many cups you can do at once.
One other snake in the grass with gas stoves is a weak gas-supply. At the Ethiopia Cupping Caravan in Portland this year, we had an amazingly well-oiled machine going among our volunteers, especially considering how little time we were given to prepare and the fact we were doing it outdoors in a park, in muddy-rainy Portland, no less. One minor issue, however, was that when we got all six burners going on our Coleman gas stoves, the little gas canisters actually couldn't supply enough gas pressure for the flames to go full-on. We were left to go six weak flames or three-to-four strong ones (we chose the latter).
Just try and think of all these things ahead of time. The most important thing is not to be surprised.
Electric kettles like this one (disclaimer: I own several and used to do events for Bodum) are popular. Those kettles are great because they heat water quite fast, in about five minutes. However, if you are going to do a large cupping, you will need several. With standard 7.5 ounce cupping bowls, each kettle like this will heat enough water for about seven or eight bowls.
Let's do the math... suppose ten coffee samples, at five cups each, that's fifty cups. So we will need at least seven kettles-worth of water! That's a lot of kettles, and it leads to another problem (hey, I did say this was the most common issue, right?). Kettles like that use a lot of energy, 1500 watts. Many standard electrical circuits can only handle two of these babies at a time before kicking the circuit-breaker and shutting off the power.
Boom, there go the lights. Or, worse, the kettles are the only items on that particular circuit, so when it blows, you don't notice until it's too late. Yes, this has happened to me before. Rather frustrating to get everything ready to go, and walk over and find four kettles of cold water.
Finally, don't forget you will need lots of water for cleaning-cups (you know, for dipping your spoons into) and should generally have plenty of left over hot water for unforeseen problems (spilled samples that need to be re-cupped, etc). Calculate the total amount of water you need for the cups, then increase it by 50%. Now, do you have the capacity to heat that much water at one time, and how long will it take?
One little thing to watch out for: If you are the person running the cupping, you may have some eager assistants running around with hot water kettles. Usually things are tight on hot water and often the helpers start to fill the cleaning-cups before all the coffee has been finished. I always tell them to make absolutely sure that they get to all the coffee samples with the hottest water possible before worrying about the dipping water. You can use room-temperature water to clean your spoon in a pinch (hate doing that, but it's possible). What you cannot do is use room-temperature water to brew the coffee!
That leads us to....
How hot should the water be?
All the boys and girls know the number-answer here, I'm sure. Around 200 degrees Fahrenheit or 94 - 95 degrees Celsius.
The open secret in cupping, of course, is that really, truly, not all of the samples will get exactly the same temperature of water. The first sample you hit from a particular kettle will get hotter water than will the last sample off the same kettle. It's not a big deal because at the grind-setting and extraction time we use for cupping, a few degrees is not going to make a big difference.
But for this reason, I always err on the side of hot. Essentially, taking water right off the boil is the best way to go for most set-ups, especially in larger cuppings (and also, especially, if you are at high altitude). By the time you walk over to the cups, hit the timers, and begin pouring, it will have cooled some. And the water loses heat in the air as it flows from kettle to cup.
Never, never, never fudge things and go with water thats "almost ready!" I've seen this more times than I can count. There's a minor shortage of hot water, and someone is standing over the last kettle as it heats up, feeling impatient and nervous. He grabs the kettle before it's really done and pours it onto the last few samples. This is terrible; it's worse than not doing those samples at all. Now the cuppers will give skewed evaluations of that coffee — which is worse than if they had not given evaluations at all. Resist the temptation! Only use water that's fully at temperature.
Or better yet: Know about all these pitfalls and limitations ahead of time, plan for them, and pull off seamless cuppings that impress your friends and make the coffees shine!
I'll have a few more common cupping mistakes to write about here soon.
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