November 07, 2019
4 Minute Read
Rory GowanTo concentrate on one thing, to be totally focused on something without letting your mind wander is a genuine (if often elusive) goal for many of us. It is also something that is critical when we are cupping coffee. Research has shown that a dedicated meditation practice can improve productivity and even alleviate depression1, but can it really make you a master coffee taster? Meditation helps cultivate mindfulness, and in this post we will explore the effect of mindfulness on cupping performance, and vice versa. Mindfulness has been described as a mental state reached by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. In this distracted age, this state can be especially difficult to achieve. Even when we are drinking coffee, we are seldom doing only that: when was the last time you sat in a café, enjoying your beverage without checking your phone, or reading, or catching up with a friend?
Cupping demands that we be keenly aware of what we are doing; this is part of the reason why at Caravela we cup all our coffees blind when re-analysing samples in our verification offices. External influence is a big problem for all types of tasting. A study by Rosemarie Neuninger at Otago Universty in New Zealand demonstrated how being aware that a bottle of wine has won a well-known award can directly affect your perception of how ‘good’ it is2. This type of bias can come in many forms if you have information regarding what you’re about to taste, such as the harvest conditions, variety, producer, or region that the coffee came from. Knowing any of these details can affect your perception, and it becomes more difficult to maintain objectivity about something when you already have an opinion about it.
Being mindful here will help but limiting available information before tasting is the most effective way to eliminate this bias. Much of the empirical evidence regarding tasting has flowed from the wine industry and related concerns; from these studies we know that influence is a huge issue but also that there are limits to how much an individual can focus. Robert Hodgson, who has been published in the Journal of Wine Economics, noted "I think there are individual expert tasters with exceptional abilities sitting alone who have a good sense, but when you sit 100 wines in front of them the task is beyond human ability." This would suggest that if we create an environment that limits bias, then a problem that we face as cuppers is a lack of focus or mindfulness- and not necessarily one of natural ability. Working on being mindful is the key. Of course, there is a limit and understanding this means better organizing the way we cup, in terms of numbers of samples that are realistically to be analysed carefully, as well as limiting the available information and ignoring background noise.
Background noise can come in many forms and is different from bias brought on through having prior information about what you are cupping. It includes any type of distraction; for example, cupping in a new environment such as origin, or stress from needing to make fast decisions based on your cupping results. These types of factors are more difficult to control externally, and in general are better mitigated through improving your focus by being more mindful. Speaking to our Director of Quality in Colombia, Alexis Villamil, her experience supports this idea. When Alexis first started cupping, her lab needed to be a distraction-free zone. “Working in a purchasing station, there are always so many different things to do at once,” she recalls of her first role at Caravela. “[Cupping] was very challenging for me, as I would start and then a producer would arrive and I would have to pause to assist them, and in doing so I would lose my train of thought about the coffees I was cupping.” Even the sound of the radio would divert her attention, causing no small amount of frustration. After years of years practice, she can now block out both internal and external distractions, while managing cupping sessions that feature many more samples on the table. Though she has more on her plate than ever, Alexis can compartmentalize these demands into small chunks and focus on the task at hand, however briefly. “For me, taking advantage of the small moments of time that I had was really important, and, although challenging to start with, this got much easier over time.”
Cultivating mindfulness does seem to have an influence on your ability to cup. Not just in terms of being fully objective, but to also be consistent with results and to limit the effect of some of the “background noise”. It can also help to increase the quantity of samples that can be evaluated while cupping. Another way to look at this, however, is that frequent cupping can also offer some of the benefits experienced by regular meditators. Achieving a high standard of control over your mind takes time and practice; just like going to the gym or learning a new language, it requires a great deal of dedication if you are going to make progress. In this regard, cuppers may have a competitive advantage in terms of achieving mindfulness, as they are often required to practice their craft several times a day. Although being more mindful can make you a better cupper, the process of cupping also has the benefit of being an opportunity to work on and to practice mindfulness in your daily working life.
1. How meditation helps with depression
2. Winning wine
Rory Gowan started his coffee career with Caravela in 2018. Passionate about food, agriculture and people he has been able to apply these interests within the coffee industry. Rory is a graduate of Otago University in New Zealand and has a background in Anthropology and Marketing.