Beyond 'Welcome': Creating Better Cuppings (Part One)
It’s a word expressed with many good intentions. Intention, however, is different from impact.
When we don’t consider what unwelcome means - feeling like the odd one out, questioning whether we belong - we are not equipped to welcome others.
Once, I left a cupping before the water was even poured.
I was invited to attend. I was welcome.
I also was singled out, critiqued, condescended to, and embarrassed. I don’t believe anyone intended to make me uncomfortable. However.
Intention is different from impact.
I’m a licensed Q grader with 13 years of industry experience. I own a cupping supply business. I’m also a femme nonbinary person, I am read as a woman, and on most days I wear skirts and dresses. I benefit from many privileges, along many axes. There also are ways that I don’t benefit.
When it comes to perceptions of my professional competency - I don’t benefit from some of the charitable assumptions made about other demographics.
The assumptions are largely unconscious. They don’t signal deliberate intention to hurt.
But intention and impact -
Cupping etiquette varies from group to group. As an example, some folks prefer total silence until everyone has finished tasting. Others don’t mind conversation, as long as tasting notes are not discussed. Certain protocols are supported by the Specialty Coffee Association, or the Coffee Quality Institute. Most businesses arrive at a unique mishmash of practices befitting their individual needs.
When cupping with a new group, I like to check at certain junctures to see which protocols are being observed. That way I can be respectful and stay within the etiquette of the room.
So. I attended this cupping.
It was time for dry fragrance - the part of a cupping where attendees smell the coffee grounds, before hot water is added. Some folks lift up the cupping bowls to sniff, while others leave the bowls on the table and lean in. It might not seem like a big deal, but in coffee these things matter to people. So it’s worth observing what others are - forgive the pun - leaning toward.
That day, each person except for one lifted the bowls. I did the same.
The one person who was leaning, and not lifting? They spoke up to tell me - and only me - that I was breaching etiquette.
At the cupping’s start, this person self-described as being newer to coffee. So I assumed they wanted to share about something they were just learning. I didn’t see a reason to change what I was doing - especially when every other cupper was doing the same thing.
So I nodded and smiled, and continued.
The person spoke up again.
Explained, again, that I was not observing etiquette.
I wanted to move on. But it didn’t seem reasonable to comply with this demand that wasn’t being made of others. I didn’t know what to do.
Then a second person chimed in.
This person was holding a cupping bowl in their hand - a cupping bowl they had just picked up off of the table.
As they held that bowl, they took their turn explaining that I was breaching etiquette.
Now two people were focused on chiding me, with one actively engaged in the behavior being described as etiquette-breaching. Meanwhile, the other cuppers were quiet.
I believe that both people wanted to help. But they also had made an assumption that I did not understand what I was doing - despite me sharing, at the event’s start, that I sell cupping spoons for a living.
They were singling me out, in a room full of cuppers doing exactly the same thing.
And I believe they were unconsciously acting on mechanisms that went deeper than just wanting to help. I’ve been in too many similar situations to dismiss them all as coincidence. The common thread in all these scenarios? I am not a cis white man. Another common thread? Cis white men were not being treated this way.
I stayed as lowkey as I could, hoping they’d drop it. But because I would not simply acquiesce, my would-be helpers continued to press.
Finally - desperate for it to end - I said, “This was okay when I passed the Q course.”
It’s true. When you take the Q, you don’t lose points for picking up cupping bowls. Although the Q makes recommendations on protocol, you pass or fail based on your ability to score coffees and take sensory tests.
When my ‘helpers’ realized that I was an experienced cupper - with a credential that perhaps neither of them held - they finally dropped the subject. I finished the rest of the table, but could barely focus. As funny or as small as the incident might seem to an outsider, I was inwardly shaken, self conscious, and upset.
It was not, in any way, the first time I’d felt that. It wouldn’t be the last.
Although I tried to shake it off, I’d lost all desire to participate in the cupping.
I wasn’t being paid to be there, I didn’t have a buying decision, and I didn’t want to put in the labor of pretending to be fine. Who would that benefit? So I excused myself and went home. I didn’t end up tasting any of the coffees.
I was welcome at that cupping. I was invited.
No one had an explicit intention to make me feel scrutinized. No one thought, “That person - that Woman - looks confident, but she probably doesn’t know what she’s doing. I’m going to put her in her place.”
Still, there was impact.
I felt marked as not belonging, in a way that no one should, no matter their experience level in coffee - and outside of coffee, too.
No one should have to pull out a Q grader license, or any other credential, just to be treated with baseline respect.
What does welcome really mean? What does invited really look like? What actions move those words from the realm of intention to real impact?
Without asking ourselves these questions, we’ll just keep putting new paint on the same brick wall. And we are causing people - especially those that hold marginalized identities - to self-select out of professional environments like cuppings.
In preparing for this piece, I interviewed several coffee professionals who have simply stopped going to cuppings. They all hold marginalized identities. And they would rather be left out than tolerate the way they’re treated in those spaces.
Others still attend; many cup for a living, and it wouldn’t make sense to opt out.
But almost everyone I interviewed had strategies. Extra thought and labor they put in at every cupping, to deal with manifestations of unexamined power imbalance.
I am compelled to ask - why do those with less privilege have to work harder at every cupping? Why can’t those with more privilege develop strategies? Strategies for making others feel welcome?
This is the first installment in a series designed to equip us - all of us - with more tools. So we can operate with shared understandings of what welcome truly looks like.
I spoke with nine coffee professionals who approach cupping differently. With their own etiquette.
Many have experienced what it’s like to feel unwelcome, and draw on those experiences to create alternatives. To match intentions with impact.
No one in this world arrives fully formed at best practices. I am personally still in process, and I believe that I always will be.
In the coming weeks, I will share what I learned from speaking with these coffee pros. I invite you to join me - because I want to grow. To be a better community member, a better leader, and a better learner.
Hiu Yan Fung, roaster and assistant manager at Chromatic Coffee, explains it simply.
“I want everyone to know - no matter their race, gender, class, or sexual orientation - that they have a place at the cupping table.”
With this as our goal, let’s keep moving forward.
By Umeko Motoyoshi, May 2019