Gender At The Cupping Table: An Exploration (Part Three)

This is the final installment in a 3-part series by Umeko Motoyoshi. The first installments are here (Part One) and here (Part Two).


A Pecking Order

At the cupping table, competitiveness is a recurring theme - and it can cause discomfort for people of all genders. Sho Young, a coffee educator at Ritual Coffee in SF, CA, shares that he’s experienced anxiety at cuppings.

“Being gay, but not immediately being viewed as such by strangers, I’ve found that many men view me as competition,” says Sho. “There is a thinly veiled hostility that comes with that. I could be minding my own business or make an innocuous statement about liking a certain coffee, and it would be immediately countered with an interrogation of my perception, and subsequently a dismantling of everything I thought I knew.

“I had a hard time articulating, or even understanding why I felt uneasy around male dominated spaces,” says Sho. “Other men, out of insecurity, would establish a pecking order. I hated this, and throughout my coffee career found myself gravitating towards women in leadership positions, because in those spaces I felt safe in expressing my thoughts.”

Image via Silent Hill

Image via Silent Hill


Adding to this, stricter adherents to protocol enforce total silence during cupping. The idea is to prevent one cupper from influencing another by speaking their notes aloud. Depending on the function of the cupping, the company culture, and the people in attendance - cupping silence is observed with varying degrees of rigor. And it is enforced with varying degrees of sensitivity.

As a person who holds identities outside of binaries, Corey Turner is attuned to the complexities of gender and power.

“One of the first situations where I was told to be silent at the cupping table, it was by a man who was in a position of power over me,” says Corey, Production Manager at Andytown. Although the man’s stated intent was to simply uphold proper etiquette, his words were delivered as a public reprimand.

“It never feels good, especially when we’re told that all the time [outside of the cupping room].”

In addition to being randomly silenced, Corey has also experienced the opposite - a room full of overly loud voices and opinions, distracting from their work. They also have noticed a culture where people who hold marginalized gender identities are expected, mid-cupping, to teach and mentor at the drop of a hat.

“It’s like you don’t have a choice - it doesn’t matter why you’re doing this cupping, how big the buying decision, you have to train someone now. There’s a feeling that non-male people have a superhuman ability to nurture, teach and learn. You want to share and be welcoming in that way. But also - like, not being asked? Just being asked goes a long way for something like that.”

A production cupping at Andytown Coffee with Corey Turner (black beanie) and Corazon Padilla (gold shirt).

A production cupping at Andytown Coffee with Corey Turner (black beanie) and Corazon Padilla (gold shirt).

From Privilege to Platform

As a queer Asian woman, Corazon Padilla* recognizes that she represents other people - even when she’s not thinking about it, and even when she doesn’t want to.

“I hold myself accountable for doing things in a way that feels right, and being mindful of the fact that there are other people who look like me and who I want to do well, because I want to set a path for others.”

How does that feel? “It feels heavy. Nobody asks me to do these things, but once you recognize that you have a voice and you can say something, you have a responsibility. If we don’t do it, who else will?”

From unspoken slurping competitions to gratuitous technical jargon, the cupping table can be a hostile environment to people of all genders. Being constantly “corrected” on tasting notes - one’s own subjective and personal experience - takes a significant toll over time.

Says Sho, “I thought that I was just wrong in the way I interpreted my palate. The reality is that taste is subjective, and as you grow your memory bank, it doesn’t necessarily make you ‘right’, but it enriches your subjective tasting experience. That is what makes it an inherently personal thing. And when someone challenges your experience, it can hurt on a personal level.”

For Joanna Thompson**, structural privilege is top of mind. “I have so many privileges, being white and cis,” Joanna says. “And if it’s been this shitty for me, I can’t imagine how hard it must be for someone who holds even a little less privilege. I see [women and nonbinary folks of color] wanting to learn and wanting to try - but I see they hit this wall of white coffee bros and they just lose that fire.

“They’re great men,” says Joanna of her male colleagues. “They just don’t seem to recognize how their privilege pares down others. They need to make more space.”

The 2018 Good Food Awards Coffee judging panel. Important industry awards such as the GFAs are moving toward representing more gender and racial diversity, rather than centering a singular demographic.

The 2018 Good Food Awards Coffee judging panel. Important industry awards such as the GFAs are moving toward representing more gender and racial diversity, rather than centering a singular demographic.

Recognition of privilege also frames Jeremiah Borrego’s*** experience. “I’ve never really understood how freely I’ve been able to move around and express myself. I’m just realizing that I’ve been benefiting from some privilege that not everybody benefits from,” says Jeremiah. “And that’s prevented me from noticing when other people were having a hard time.

“Now I consciously prioritize the perspective of people who haven’t had as many opportunities to share their insight.”

Almost every coffee professional interviewed for this piece spoke to the issue of cuppings largely being hosted and run by members of a singular demographic.

Joanna elaborates, “[In Indianapolis], pretty much every coffee company is run by the same brand of men, so they’re the ones who control the narratives around cuppings. There’s no one leading that is in any way a minority or a person of color. There’s no opportunity for them to show that they, too, can show up at the cupping table full of knowledge.”

Says Jeremiah, “I feel like these formats, having been typically set up and codified by white men, reinforce that playing field that is geared toward them and their perspectives - and how to create moments of asserting dominance. I would be very interested to see what a cupping would look like if it was rethought by people that were not white males.

“[Part of my responsibility] is giving voice to other perspectives and creating more platforms for that. Any chance that I have to hear from other people with other perspectives - I want to hear that, and I want that to inform and be a part of anything I’m doing, in any way that I can.”

By Umeko Motoyoshi, April 2019

This is the final installment in a 3-part series. The first installments are here (Part One and here (Part Two).

*Corazon Padilla, Director of Quality Control at Andytown Roasters in SF, CA. Her story is shared in Part One of this series.

**Joanna Thompson is Head of Quality Control at Bee Coffee in Indianapolis, IN. Her story is shared in Part One of this series.

***Jeremiah Borrego, founder of Olas Coffee in Brooklyn, NY. Jeremiah’s story is shared in Part One of this series.

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