It has been one year, three months and 10 days since my part of the world first went into shutdown mode due to the COVID-19 pandemic. To be clear, I have not had COVID-19 (knock on wood); however, its mere existence cast a pall over the cupping table since the dawn of 2020.
Almost overnight last year, the coffee industry dramatically reformed processes and protocols to protect cuppers from contracting a virus that was poorly understood but highly contagious.
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 failed to address the biggest culprit of transmission: the air.
In order to ensure the safety of our co-workers and families while performing our most important daily professional functions, we at Cooperative Coffees made a decision to have all staff work from home. This included yours truly… the Lonely Cupper.
As many U.S. coffee operations are returning to some semblance of operational normalcy, this may be a good time to reflect on the realities, challenges and, yes, rewards of professional coffee cupping at home.
Setting Up at Home
Setting up a home lab may seem like a daunting task, but it turned out to be much easier than I expected. The first step was figuring out how to roast at home. After we toyed with the idea of bringing our 2-barrel Probat sample roaster to my home, our General Manager Ed Canty suggested instead that we try an Ikawa machine. These roasters are essentially built for home and small labs, taking up less than a square foot of space and operating on standard 110-volt electricity.
Lucky for us Equator Coffee Roasters, 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 warehouse were sent straight to me; and I brought home tools for measuring moisture, water activity and density. 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 went something like this: A pre-ship or landed sample arrived at my door; I thanked the delivery person (from a distance), brought it inside, disposed of the outer packaging, washed my hands and got to work. From my kitchen, I could roast, grade, measure, and cup as usual.
Now, you might ask, “How did you stay calibrated?” or “What if there was a quality issue? Shouldn’t it be verified by a second opinion?”
Well, I’m very glad you asked.
A key component in our ability to relocate the lab was our web-based cupping platform, which allowed us to cup from any location and track that information within our system.
I could check cup reports of coffees from the same producers over the last several years to compare. If an issue arose where I needed a second cupper to verify my findings, I could simply roast up a little extra coffee, drop it off locally to our sourcing manager, Felipe Gurdian, or mail it to an experienced coop member, and they could cup remotely using our platform, with results reported in real time.
This was all made possible with the online cupping platform, which we are currently using in a pilot program involving participating coop members, producer partners and staff throughout the world. The hope is that with this technology, we’ll be able to cup together across any physical distance 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).
If time, budget and interests allow, we could regularly cup the same coffees within the coop or with producers, working toward greater calibration between staff, members and producer partners.
There are things I missed about cupping in groups: There’s the immediate feedback after finishing a table, or the subtle gestures like nods of silent excitement (or disappointment) that help make a more immersive and social experience.
On the other hand, cupping alone removes any whiff of professional distraction or outside influence, freeing the mind to focus entirely on the task at hand.
Yet most importantly, perhaps, cupping alone for 15 months taught me that I am indeed never alone — that calibration is a necessary act of connection, and that the language of coffee transcends borders and boundaries. I have learned to better trust the results of web-based cupping, a sharpened new tool that is likely to help carry us forward in a 2021 and beyond that will most certainly be less lonely.
Matt Damron is the Quality Manager and Coffee Buyer for Asia at Cooperative Coffees. He is based in Montreal, Quebec.