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Editor’s Note: This article first ran on March 9, 2020, in Daily Coffee News. It is reprinted here with permission.

As the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has been capturing headlines worldwide, the Specialty Coffee Association last week announced a series of new hygiene practices to be implemented at upcoming coffee trade shows in Portland (Oregon), Melbourne, and Warsaw.

Among these is a “modified” SCA cupping protocol to include “an individual shot glass” for each participant. This practice, which is not new to the industry, is often referred to as the indirect method. The idea is that, with the addition of another vessel, the cupper’s spoon never touches their lips.

The unspoken concern here is that cuppings are generally a little gross and irrefutably unsanitary, truths that are amplified in large-format public cuppings. It doesn’t take a germaphobe to recognize the infection possibilities presented by a lukewarm glass of water shared by a bunch of strangers.

The SCA has taken a first, tentative step towards a remedy, and I think that it’s great that they’re thinking about this before someone shows up to cup at the Expo with an infectious disease, rather than after.

However, the indirect cupping method has flaws of its own. It’s an incredibly inefficient way to cup, and an imperfect measure for preventing the spread of viral infection.

For starters, cupping begins with smelling the grounds, and doing so requires close proximity of the cupper’s nose to the glass. If multiple cuppers are in attendance, airborne transmission of pathogens is almost guaranteed at this stage, well before water ever hits the grounds. I won’t even address how disgusting and unsanitary the idea is of replacing individual spittoons with floor spittoons.

Secondly, indirect cupping makes cupping even more complicated to physically and mentally coordinate. A cupper must manage a spoon, a spittoon, and a cupping form with just two hands; navigate a table of perhaps 30-50 individual cups without cross-contaminating; and manage to focus on nuanced and sensory ephemera.

Adding another thing to hold, plus an additional activity of correctly spooning coffee into a glass (or second spoon) without risking contamination is simply a lot to coordinate, if not also arguably ableist.

There are some safeguards and solutions to minimize exposure when cupping:

  1. First and foremost, it’s incredibly rude and thoroughly unhealthy for everyone if you cup when sick, even when using the indirect method. Don’t do it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve cupped at a table with someone who’s tried the indirect method or claimed it’s “just allergies” or pretended it wasn’t problematic, only to find myself suffering their symptoms the next day.
  2. Wash your hands; don’t touch your face; empty your spittoon frequently so it doesn’t splash; rinse your spoon completely before and after you use it each time; refresh rinse water frequently and right-off-the-boil. None of these will prevent the spread of disease completely, but they are the least you can do.
  3. Don’t cup with strangers. Keep a tight cupping team of people you can trust and with whom you agree on best practices.

If you must taste coffee in large groups, here are some reasonable precautions:

  1. Don’t cup. Batch brew or make pourovers, but don’t share anything other than the experience. Get your own cup, and have a designated area for bussing dirty dishes. This is the easiest and most elegant solution. Although it is buried under some bullet points, the SCA has acknowledged this alternative, saying, “For those who wish to avoid cuppings, batch brewers can be made available upon request.” I’ve been using this for groups at The Crown for our regular Friday afternoon coffee tastings, and it’s thoroughly rewarding and completely sanitary. You can still talk about sweetness, acidity, and body, and rattle off a dozen flavor notes without sharing everyone’s germs. It’s so easy.
  2. Use a new spoon each time. Counter Culture has been using this technique at their public coffee tasting events, and while it requires a lot of spoons, it’s a slightly improved technique to the indirect method. While it still requires some coordination and relies on people to be precise and consistent — characteristics humans tend to struggle with — it has the advantage of not requiring either an extra appendage or communal spittoon, which I think everyone can appreciate.
  3. Set each attendee up with their own personal cupping. I’ve done this a handful of times with new cuppers to help them learn the technique, and I highly recommend it if you can spare the glassware and have enough roasted coffee. For the uninitiated, the cupping process is often challenging and intimidating, and having a personal station removes a lot of performance pressure. Cuppers can proceed at their own pace, make a mistake or two, and taste everything the coffee has to offer without interfering in anyone else’s experience.

I don’t wish to be alarmist, nor do I consider myself to be particularly germaphobic. But if the coronavirus can catalyze a little introspection into hygienic practices while cupping, I’m all for it.

There’s no better time than now to consider the public health consequences of cupping, and there’s no reason we can’t enjoy a collective and valuable coffee analysis experience without putting those around us at risk of illness.