Gender At The Cupping Table: An Exploration (Part One)
Jeremiah Borrego has noticed something odd. As an experienced roaster and founder of Olas Coffee in Brooklyn, NY, Jeremiah regularly cups coffee for work. And an energy, something just beyond vocabulary, keeps announcing itself when a woman approaches the cupping table.
“There’s a certain kind of attention paid to someone who’s not perceived as male,” says Jeremiah. “It’s hard to describe because sometimes it’s not overt, not something I can put my finger on or call out. They might not realize that they’re doing it, but they’re definitely doing it. And sometimes it seems like the women are uncomfortable.”
From Tool to Weapon
Cupping, a standardized method for evaluating coffee quality, was popularized by Hills Brothers Coffee in the late 19th century. A strikingly odd process, cupping involves brewing coffee, unfiltered, in small porcelain bowls - cupping bowls. The cupper dips a rounded spoon into the bowl, filling the spoon with coffee. Then the spoon is brought directly to the cupper’s lips, and they loudly slurp from it before spitting the coffee into a cup or a spittoon.
The loud slurp, perhaps cupping’s most memorable feature, is meant to aerosolize the coffee, spreading it across the palate for a more complete tasting experience. As cupping lumbered its strange way through the 20th century, its significance within the coffee industry shifted. No longer regarded as a simple tool to assist in buying and roasting coffee, cupping came to represent the power of decision-making, and the prowess of a palate tuned to make those decisions. Women, of course, were discouraged from joining.
Erna Knutsen, one of coffee’s most renowned pioneers, named her industry. Specialty coffee is a term of her devising. And because she was a woman, she was not allowed to join the cupping table at her company until she bought the business in 1985 and fired all the men who had shut her out. This was only 35 years ago, and the cupping table still holds an air of exclusivity, mystery, and for many - masculinity. The specialty coffee industry, as progressive as it wants to be, is just starting to acknowledge the dynamics turning women away from the cupping table - the realm of perceived power, the realm of perceived mastery.
“I have never attended a cupping that is only women. At all, ever,” says Joanna Thompson, Head of QC at Bee Coffee in Indianapolis, IN. “The first cupping table I was ever at was with four men. And you’re one girl, there’s no one there that really looks like you or acts like you, and you’re trying to learn how to cup while being constantly interrupted or talked over.”
She points out that these patterns don’t seem ill-intended. “It’s not necessarily in a mean way,” Joanna continues. “They’re just enthusiastic, they’re loud, they have opinions.” But however unintended, the impact is real.
“They never recognized how their talking constantly and their jokes about baby mamas was a weird and distracting environment to learn to cup in,” says Joanna. “I am glad I learned how to think through that and ignore it because it’s made me a better cupper. But you would have men say that your tasting notes were incorrect. That’s happened a lot to me, and that’s happened to a lot of women in Indianapolis.”
(Note: The phrase baby mama, when dispatched as a joke by white men, brings a coded racial tinge to the environment as well - by appropriating Black language in a mocking way. Misuse of language and concepts created by people of color can be erasing and exclusionary, sending a message that people of color are not the audience for these jokes - that the jokes are about them.)
Jeremiah describes cupping situations where women and nonbinary coffee professionals are othered as they work. Sometimes the dynamic is sexually objectifying. Sometimes it’s condescending. Glances are exchanged behind their backs, comments are made that seem innocuous at first - until they’re recognized as part of a pattern.
“A woman will express an opinion or just say something that’s completely subjective - it could be like a tasting note or a sensation of the acid or the body. And then there’ll be someone in the room - a man - who will quasi-challenge it in a way. It’s her own perception so it seems odd for someone else to make an amendment on that perception. “If it happened once, that’s one thing,” Jeremiah continues. “But it might happen more than once. And even to happen once is odd.”
Turning the Tables
As Corazon Padilla learned to taste coffee, she was challenged by an absence of structure and fact-based information. She frequently received the advice to “just keep practicing”. This felt confounding - how could she practice when she didn’t even know what she should be practicing? Over time, Corazon created her own researched framework for tasting, and self-taught using this method.
Now Director of Quality Control at Andytown Roasters in SF, CA, Corazon has developed a sensory training program that centers supportive, structured learning. Deeply aware of how her role can intimidate new hires, Corazon flips the script in her trainings. She even takes steps to bring awareness to her own fallibility as a taster.
“I’ll do blind tasting alongside baristas, and sometimes I get the answers wrong, and that’s ok. I say I’m human, I make mistakes too, palate fatigue is real, it’s normal. I want to show them that they can be in a room full of experts but it doesn’t mean the experts are right.” Corazon remembers a tasting she attended where the other two people in the room, both men, talked the entire time, over each other and her. When she wanted to say something, the men simply continued on as if she weren’t there.
“Being a woman and also a person of color, I was raised to never talk over anyone, let other people go first. Women are more willing to let someone finish what they’re saying. "At cuppings,” she adds, “I know that what I say will have weight and I’ll be deferred to. So I’ll wait to share my thoughts until everyone else has spoken. I want to help people to learn to use their voices.”
By Umeko Motoyoshi, March 2019