Creating Better Cuppings, Part Five: Difference & Confidence
Different Is Not Wrong
Tasting is a personal, subjective experience. We all have our own unique and individual sense memory banks, and we all experience coffees in our own way. Unfortunately, this often goes unconsidered in the cupping room. For folks who hold marginalized identities, it can feel like an uphill battle to express anything other than a duplicate echo of the louder tasters in the room.
A marginalized person’s differing opinion is much more likely to be perceived as “incorrect”, and that “incorrectness” chalked up to a lack of knowledge or experience. However, marginalized folks are so used to being doubted that it often forces them to develop their own tasting framework in much more depth than those questioning them.
Says Michelle Johnson, Founder of The Chocolate Barista and Account Manager at Tartine Manufactory, “My personal approach for tasting in general is I do more than just tasting notes. I taste feelings, colors, textures. I encourage folks to go beyond just what their taste buds are tasting - which is also just as valid - and to describe how a coffee makes them feel, a memory that it reminds me of. I’ve been to a few cupprings where someone was like, ‘This reminds me of the oatmeal that my grandma made.” And that resonated with someone else who was able to turn that into specific flavor notes from asking questions, like cinnamon and apples, so then everyone was like ‘Oh, I get that!’. I think people try to make it seem like there’s dissonance if you don’t just use tasting notes but to me that’s not true.”
Amy Moore also encourages tasting beyond our taste buds. “One way I try to implement inclusivity is by including abstract guides for coffee description based on experiences, colors and music beyond the standard tasting wheel.” Amy notes that everyone relates differently to food, so it can be helpful to make other connections. “I have religious dietary restrictions and I’m always thinking about how vegetarians, vegans or people with eating disorders might be affected/triggered and relate to taste differently, so this is an attempt to make the experience more inclusive and engaging.”
When leading cuppings, Erika “EV” Vonie makes it clear that calibrating as a team does not mean homogenizing. “Before we cup, I reiterate that flavors are subjective, and everyone's flavor dictionaries are different, so be gentle with everyone. I haven't tasted everything in the world, and I don't expect tasters (especially new to coffee) to have fully formed flavor dictionaries either.”
From there, EV leads with intentional questions designed to set others up for success. “At the beginning, I ask everyone individually a question related to the session. Usually softballs like ‘What are you excited about in this session?’, and ‘Have you ever had coffee from x before?’. This way, everyone has had a chance to speak, hear each other's voices and answer a question with conviction and honesty, so they've spoken something true, before we enter into the mire of subjective coffee flavors and experience.”
“I don’t ask questions like ‘what do you taste?’” says EV. “That can have a myriad of answers that could potentially get argued by someone else with an opinion. I love asking specific things like ‘Where does the acidity hit in your mouth? Is it a high intensity, or is it soft? Does it remind you of a food you've eaten before?’ I aim to ask leading questions that will result in a true answer, that also empowers the person I'm asking. It's such a good feeling as an educator, to watch someone make a connection and find their answer because they've been asked a question that empowers their experience. I really try to steer away from flavor calls, because that's where a lot of uncertainty comes up, and ask more experiential questions - mouthfeel, sweetness, acidity - to create a better whole understanding of the coffee.”
Sharon Fung, Barista at Ritual Coffee in San Francisco, CA, also likes to ground flavor conversations in the experiential. “Everyone’s palate is different and everyone has a different background. When someone offers a flavor descriptor I like to tell them why they are experiencing that. For example, if someone says that this coffee tastes like tangerine, I explain to them the reason they are experiencing that and how that relates to the coffee’s sweetness and acidity.”
While working as an educator, Chelsea took a similar approach. “I found more success in group engagement by spinning questions different ways. For example, instead of the general, ‘WHAT ARE YOU TASTING?’ inquiry posed to the group, I would say something like, ‘Does this remind you of something that you eat or drink that's not coffee?’ Essentially, becoming more articulate as an educator in efforts to engage more students. If someone offered the comment, ‘I taste apple,’ I could encouragingly say, ‘Cool! What kind of apple are you thinking about?’ And then, who knows, we start talking about someone's family's apple farm.’”
If someone has a tasting experience that seems different from yours at first, try to understand how it actually may connect with your own experience. Maybe you tasted white grape and someone else tasted lychee. However, the coffee contains no literal grapes or lychees, so neither of you is actually right or wrong. The two fruits share similarities in flavor and texture, but maybe you grew up eating grapes and someone else grew up eating lychee. So you are more likely to associate certain flavors with white grape, while the other person is more likely to associate those flavors with lychee. You both hold a valid opinion, and you both can learn from the other’s experience.
Practice curiosity and intentional questions, and listen without making a judgement about correctness. Instead, listen with the intent to learn.
As I discussed earlier in this series, cupping is an emotionally vulnerable environment. When participants approach without that recognition, cuppings can become sites of shame and destroyers of confidence.
Kiana Cruz, Roaster at Progeny Coffee in Oakland, CA and Founder of Golden Hour Coffee Moto in Richmond, CA, experienced devastating impacts from microaggressions in many cuppings. “I felt intimidated by men who’d been in this for longer than I had. Sometimes I just operated out of fear. Especially trying to keep my place at the table, and trust in my own skills as well.”
Says Chelsea, “It took a very long time for me to gain even average confidence when it comes to tasting coffee. I'd say that this lack of confidence was due, a lot in part, from coffee dudes talking about--ad nauseum--what they were experiencing as fact, with little room for anyone else's thoughts. I've had the full spectrum of complete strangers in cuppings to World Certified judges alike tell me that my taste perception was not valid and/or incorrect without any substance to back that claim up - see: gaslighting. My personal favorite is when I’ll offer up a comment at a cupping table and am met with a blank stare and non-answer. How’s that for validating?”
But when cuppers seek to build each other up, the experience can be encouraging, connecting, and exciting. Jenna openly states, “I hope to lead cuppings that build coffee confidence.” For new cuppers, receiving validation can change their entire perspective on tasting.
Michelle counts herself as one of the lucky ones. “The confidence aspect of it came early on. If my first cupping experience wasn’t what it was - coupled with having a manager who saw the passion that was within me and really stoked that fire, and really encouraged me and pushed me to keep it going - I think I’d have a totally different outlook on it.”
“I’m aware that that’s something that not a lot of people get. But I found people who encouraged my way of tasting and no one could tell me nothing after that. Back then I put a lot of weight on the fact that I trained at Counter Culture. It was like, ‘If someone from Counter Culture is telling me that it’s totally ok if I think a coffee tastes like raspberry red - not like a raspberry but like the color, that specific shade of red - no one can tell me anything, because it makes sense.’ And that’s when I learned that that had a name (synesthesia).”
“So when I’m teaching people how to taste and teaching people about coffee, I probably over-affirm and over-validate people. Because I know how much that confidence just goes a long way. Especially for people who aren’t white dudes, it’s so important.”
Frustratingly, sometimes marginalized people suffer more microaggressions when they openly display confidence, because it is unconsciously perceived as threatening. This can be extremely difficult to deal with on a daily basis. Shares Cydni, “It’s wild the outsider syndrome that we internalize as people who are historically othered. I still catch myself talking like this is my first year. It’s a safety mechanism - code-switching when I enter these spaces. I’m very opinionated, but I have to act like I don’t know things so that I’m welcome in this space. When I come with friends and we’re confident and have a good time, it’s kind of like ‘oh look at them’.”
When we arrive at a cupping with the intention to affirm and build, we can deeply, positively impact our own lives as well as other people’s. Cuppings are vulnerable spaces, but that doesn’t have to be negative. When we identify microaggressions, take steps to change behavior, and practice kindness to others, that vulnerability becomes the key ingredient in genuine connection.
Bringing it back to my favorite quote from Sharon Fung, “I want everyone to know, no matter their race, gender, class, or sexual orientation, that everyone has a place at the cupping table.”
Make space for others. Practice hospitality. Ask instead of assuming. Remember that different is not wrong. And seek to build confidence, for yourself and for others. These suggestions can improve the experience of every single person at the cupping, and they don’t hurt in life outside the cupping room either.
By Umeko Motoyoshi, September 2019
The previous installment in this series is here.