Gender At The Cupping Table: An Exploration (Part Two)
This is the second installment in a three-part series by Umeko Motoyoshi. The first installment can be found here.
Candy From Another Country
Kiana Cruz, who roasts for Progeny Coffee in Berkeley, CA, says early cupping experiences impacted her confidence for years.
“Sometimes I still feel a little bit intimidated to go into a cupping, especially when I’m outnumbered in terms of gender or identity. I feel like I have to put on a different persona in cupping. Sometimes I feel like my identity is erased when that happens. It’s a struggle to feel like I can say what I want to say.”
Kiana has cupped through a multitude of distracting and intimidating behaviors - including unspoken competitions over who can think of the most obscure and specific tasting notes. “They throw out a weird tasting note and I ask what it is, and they say ‘You don’t know what that is?’ It’s like - can you just explain what it is, instead of throwing it back in my face that I don’t know?”
She continues, “They’re still just stoking their own egos. Last time, someone named an obscure candy from another country, that no one else had tasted, and all the women in the room kind of looked at each other.”
Kiana also notices that some men use very technical language - perhaps unnecessarily so - without explaining it to others who aren’t familiar. This can result in a feeling of being outside, of not being as knowledgeable as one’s peers. Like Corazon*, Kiana reflects on these experiences to create more safe and comfortable learning for new hires.
“In sensory training,” she says, “It’s first establishing the healthy relationship that there’s no wrong answer. I always try to have that conversation before we go into tasting. I tell people, ‘This is kind of a weird intimidating process, but it can be fun, even if you feel nervous.’ It builds support that I’m there for them.”
Maritza Taylor, Director of Quality Control for Birdrock and PT’s, shared similar challenges in the early years of her career.
“I started in Colombia. Listening to what other cuppers were saying and taking notes, for me they were crazy. I said, ‘It just tastes like coffee.’ When I started, I wasn’t tasting anything of what the others were tasting. As I went on, I kept tasting and kept taking notes. But my concepts were still not allowed or taken into account. After 2 years I was part of a panel, and then my opinion was taken into account.”
Now with 22 years of experience in the industry, Maritza has been re-certified as a Q-grader four times. Generally regarded as a tasting goliath, Maritza speaks of cupping with both confidence and humility.
“Sometimes I get shy when I cup with people who are more experienced than me. Or when someone is describing the rainbow and the unicorns and I’m like, I don’t see it. So I always say - ok, I’ll take notes of what I am tasting and I’m gonna stick with that no matter what anyone else says. I always have in mind what my company needs. I set a profile that I want to buy, and look for the coffee that’s close to the profile, or better.”
Maritza shares that it is crucial to consider the function of a given cupping, to guide the appropriate language and approach. “In production cupping, it’s really about making sure we follow the profile we’ve set. For coffee buying, it’s totally different. I try to taste with more than one person, to make sure I’m not putting flowers in something that doesn’t have flowers.”
Maritza also hold awareness that her opinion, as a highly regarded expert, can sway others. “We have customers that buy our coffee, and when they come to choose their coffee, I try to be quiet. Then they make their decisions, and then I talk about the coffee.”
Khanh Trang, co-owner of Greater Goods Coffee in Austin, TX, feels at ease at the cupping table.
“I have been cupping for so long now, I don’t feel intimidated in a room full of men. Recently I cupped with some men who didn’t have the [sensory] recall yet, and it was interesting to see them kind of shrug. I’ve learned to decipher where the lack of experience is.” Khanh encountered challenges when she first started to cup, and says she became a licensed Q-grader just to be seen as more credible. She knows many women who have gotten Q-certified for the same reason.
“When I first started in the industry, it was really, really hard and that wasn’t that long ago. I had to try to break into the industry with bunch of older men who weren’t willing to share information or teach.” She notices that some women on her team struggle with confidence when it comes to tasting. “They don’t feel like they can speak up. But I want to make them aware that it’s ok to speak up and go after what they want. They feel like they’re not deserving of that in certain ways. And that’s really hard for me to see.”
Khanh considers her impact on others, and makes adjustments when necessary to create a more comfortable cupping environment. With peers, Khanh uses technical language, and for the general public and new wholesale accounts, she uses more approachable terminology.
Khanh is possessed of the slurp among slurps - the whistle-slurp. It is exactly as it sounds - a high-powered slurp producing a whistling noise, revered and coveted by cuppers. As silly as it seems, a whistle-slurp can silence a room of cuppers. However, like Corazon*, Khanh is not married to the perceived power that accompanies a loud slurp, an ultra-specific tasting note, or other signifiers of mastery.
“Sometimes I take away the whistle slurp. It’s about making it as approachable as possible. We have cuppings all the time and it’s really fun to help people learn. It’s more magical than going in and proving that they can cup.”
A loud slurp commands respect among a certain demographic, so it’s uncommon for a cupper to tone it down - whistle or no.
Says Joanna, of Bee Coffee, “I’ve been at cupping tables where they’re turned into a huge slurping contest. Whoever could slurp the loudest was respected the most. Like everyone in the room awed at someone else’s slurp and they’re considered to be the best. It’s not that I don’t appreciate a good contest, it’s just that we’re trying to do work!”
By Umeko Motoyoshi, April 2019