Creating Better Cuppings, Part Four: Space & Hospitality

By Umeko Motoyoshi

This is the fourth installment in the series Creating Better Cuppings.

Creating Better Cuppings is, itself, a follow-up to a three-part series called Gender At The Cupping Table.

Gender At The Cupping Table starts here.

Creating Better Cuppings starts here.

Photo by René Pollock via Unsplash

Photo by René Pollock via Unsplash

In our last installment we defined microaggressions. In this installment and next, we explore common microaggressions that occur at cuppings, and solutions to shift toward a healthier environment. How do we make cuppings a safe and welcoming environment for all? Read on for perspectives from some incredible coffee professionals.

Make Space For Others

Chelsea Thoumsin, Coffee Buyer for Counter Culture Coffee in Durham, NC, worked as a coffee educator for three years, during which time she led hundreds of cuppings and tasting classes.

“I noticed some trends along the way,” says Chelsea. “I saw some students--particularly those of marginalized groups--often shrinking back a bit as white cis-male students generally felt free to take up space, and usually a lot of it. I also noticed that nearly every single time, the majority of the people in attendance were white, though I was in a city with a 40% white population.”

What does taking up space mean? Simply put, it means we’re not monitoring how much energy and attention we draw toward ourselves in relation to others. This often shows up as talking far more than others in the room. When we’re talking all the time, others can’t express their own thoughts and perspectives. Sometimes we may even interrupt and talk over others.

Taking up space can also manifest as talking loudly while others are trying to focus, blocking others from accessing the cupping bowls while we write our notes, standing too close to fellow cuppers, trying to rush or hurry people through the table, making loud gestures like slamming cupping spoons down on the table, and leaving spit cups for someone else to empty.

When we take up too much space, we send a message to others that we are more important and more worthy - and that they are less important and less worthy. That’s a deeply painful message to send, no matter how unintended! It’s an example of why I feel the term “microaggression” doesn’t do justice to the harm these behaviors can cause. But let us keep in mind that this is not about an individual failing. These are learned behaviors, consistently encouraged and rewarded by our culture. They result from structures and not from any one person just being born without sensitivity. However, it is time to learn new ways of engaging during a cupping - and in life generally!

So how do we “make space”? This is something that many of us, who hold many different identities, can adopt into practice.

Let’s start by paying attention to how much curiosity we feel about others’ experiences.

When we’re at a cupping, do we want to know what others are thinking about the coffees? Or are we primarily focused on expressing our own opinions? If we do not feel curiosity, let’s ask ourselves why. We can’t grow when we’re only listening to our own voices. Name for yourself the ways you can benefit from learning what others are experiencing. Cultivate that curiosity within yourself.

Wait for others to share before you jump in. Proactively ask others what they think, and be ready to hear their experiences as valid without placing a judgement on whether they’re “correct”. You don’t have to put anyone on the spot; maybe you see someone’s finished their notes and is waiting for others away from the table. You could join them and quietly ask, “Which ones were your favorites?” Get comfortable with just listening to their answer instead of waiting for your turn to talk.

Be conscious of the physical space you’re taking up. If you need some extra time to make notes on a particular coffee, step away from the table so others can still cup. Conversely, be aware of when you may be rushing someone with your body language or physical proximity. It’s always respectful to give people physical space.

Think about whether your volume level could be distracting to others. Different companies have different cultures around talking during a cupping; but even if your company doesn’t mind talking, you can still maintain a respectful volume so others can focus.

Take responsibility for your own impacts on others’ workload. When you’re a guest at someone else’s cupping, It’s always nice to offer to help clean up. Empty and clean your own spit cup whenever you can. Other people should not have to add your saliva to their to-dos.

Erika “EV” Vonie, Licensed Q-Grader, 2017 Coffee Masters Champion, and Director of Coffee at Trade Coffee in New York City, NY.

Erika “EV” Vonie, Licensed Q-Grader, 2017 Coffee Masters Champion, and Director of Coffee at Trade Coffee in New York City, NY.

If you are leading a cupping, you are in a great position to help balance who gets to do the most talking. Says Erika “EV” Vonie, Director of Coffee at Trade Coffee in NYC, “During sessions, I will directly ask questions to those who seem shy, or quiet and uncertain at the table. I make sure to give them the floor before someone who's chomping at the bit to answer.”

EV has a strategy for navigating rooms with louder tasters. “If I notice someone dominating the conversation, I generally turn to one of the quieter people in the session and ask them if they agree, or disagree and why. Men are generally (but not always) much more comfortable voicing their opinion, and positioning opinion as fact, but instead of stifling them and not letting them speak, I try to use it as a way to engage the other tasters at the table to agree, disagree, or use it as a springboard for their own experiences.”

Practice Hospitality

Many of us come from a hospitality background or currently hold hospitality roles. How would we interact with others if they were guests in our cafe? Or if we were hosting them at our home? We would want them to feel comfortable and welcomed. We can be hospitable to others even when we are not hosting. Try this at your next cupping!

Says Erica Escalante, Owner of The Arrow in Portland, OR, “This is a pretty easy step - actually talk to each person at the cupping!” Whether or not you are the host, you can proactively introduce yourself to others. “Ask for everyone’s pronouns and give a chance for people to introduce themselves if they want.” 

Amy Moore, Director of Public Education at Ipsento Coffee in Chicago, IL, seconds this sentiment. “I always take time for everyone to introduce themselves, share their name, preferred pronoun or identification and a bit about why they are there. It’s a very simple concept but I’ve seen a notable difference between the times I have and haven’t done it.”

When you ask someone for their pronouns, be sure to share yours also. Asking for pronouns is for everyone, including cis people! If you are a cis person and you ask someone for their pronouns, then act surprised when they ask for yours, it can feel othering. It’s also not necessary to say, “Oh, I’m just she/her” or “I’m just he/him”, as if someone with different pronouns has something extra complicated going on. Everyone’s pronouns are a valid and straightforward affair. I usually ask for pronouns by saying, “What are your pronouns? Mine are she/her or they/them.”

Cydni Patterson, Barista at Caffe Driade in Chapel Hill, NC

Cydni Patterson, Barista at Caffe Driade in Chapel Hill, NC

Cydni Patterson, Barista at Caffe Driade in Chapel Hill, NC, points out that if you’re doing introductions, it’s best to introduce yourself to everyone. It can feel uncomfortable to be the one person who didn’t get a hello, and these kinds of snubs are often directed at Black people. 

“Our internal monologues really speak via body language and eye contact,” says Cydni. “No one intentionally thinks - there’s a Black person, let’s ignore them. But if you’re introducing yourself to everyone else, why would you not introduce yourself to the one person who doesn’t look like you? When I see those indicators at the cupping table - being weird, hovering away - a lot of times it’s funny, but the older I get the more I’m like, ‘Come on guys’.” 

“If you only talk to people that you know, and you just have one black friend that only comes out when you want to say the N word - try to create new memories with new people, rather than just reminiscing with the good ol’ boys every time.”

Says Erica, “We need to be hospitable at our cuppings.” That means hospitality toward everyone. Says Jenna Gotthelf, Regional Educator at Counter Culture Coffee in NYC, “Leading cuppings is hospitality. My responsibility as an educator is helping to facilitate the growth of multi-dimensional coffee professionals. When I lead cuppings, I think about creating positive spaces that are inclusive, engaging, and educational.” 

Jenna Gotthelf, Regional Educator at Counter Culture Coffee in NYC

Jenna Gotthelf, Regional Educator at Counter Culture Coffee in NYC

Remember that we can practice welcoming behaviors and attitudes even if we’re not hosting the cupping. Anyone can be kind to others. 

Perhaps we feel that we are already welcoming at cuppings. It’s easy to reflect on our own comfort level as a gauge for how others might feel - but this can be a misleading measurement.

“We should be more mindful of our comfort zones,” says Cydni. “Is it comfortable for everyone, or is it just the norm for us? When you’re welcoming to people, it makes the space comfortable. When people can just be themselves, then you can just relax. It’s a privilege for people to be at their most comfortable with you.”

Ask Instead of Assuming

We can’t know someone’s background or experience unless it’s told to us. Are we talking to someone as if they’ve never been to a cupping before? Have we actually learned about their experience, or are we making an assumption? Check yourself hard to catch these assumptions, because the impact can be brutal. Are you explaining something unprompted? Are you trying to coach someone who didn’t ask for it? If you engage in these behaviors, it’s likely that you’re assuming you know more than them. Why?

In the first installment in this series, I described my experience being coached at a cupping and assumed to not understand how cuppings work. When I directly stated that I’m a licensed Q-Grader, my would-be coaches were so surprised that they fell completely silent. You also may remember roaster Kiana Cruz’s experience with constantly receiving palate development advice, despite having an already honed and confident palate

If you find yourself giving others advice, try to notice whether or not they asked for it. And try to notice if there’s a pattern to whom you choose as recipients of your unsolicited advice. Then please, please, stop. 

Practice shifting into a learning mindset. When you catch yourself about to give unsolicited advice, try actively thinking, “This person may very well have more experience and knowledge than I do. Perhaps they don’t need my advice, since they haven’t asked for it. Perhaps I have something to learn from them instead.”

Try actively thinking that because it’s true and accurate. And it is incredibly frustrating to constantly deal with wannabe cupping coaches. Says Michelle, “I don’t need to learn how to do anything. You need to learn how to get out of my fucking face.” 

Instead of making assumptions, it’s helpful to just ask. This can be part of introductions before you start. This also allows room for those who are actually new to cupping to feel included and receive the information they need.

Erica Escalante, Owner of The Arrow Coffeehouse in Portland, OR.

Erica Escalante, Owner of The Arrow Coffeehouse in Portland, OR.

Says Erica, “Find out if they’ve ever been to a cupping before and figure out how much they know. I always feel out the room to see at what stage everyone is at. Then, if there is anyone in the room that doesn’t know anything about cupping, we go over each step and why we do it. Always making sure that we carefully explain and not assume.”

Jenna adopts a similar strategy. “No matter how many familiar faces of seasoned coffee professionals I see, I start off cuppings with an explanation of what cupping is, why we do it, and how we do it. I demonstrate slurping, explain the slurp's purpose, and encourage the use of a spit cup. I note that there is no shame in choking, and that it happens to everyone.”

In the next installment we continue to examine microaggressive cupping behaviors and suggestions for a more safe and welcoming environment.

By Umeko Motoyoshi, September 2019

The previous installment in this series is here.

The next installment in this series is here.

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