Can you cup coffee when you have a cold? Should you cup coffee when you have a cold? The answer is yes and no, but perhaps not for the reasons you were imagining.
2014 greeted me with a nasty cold this year, and trying to drink some lovely Ethiopian coffee that I got from the shop down the street was a frustrating affair. I knew it tasted “good,” but I couldn’t quite tell why. It reminded me of the many times I or colleagues of mine have been forced to make a choice between cupping or not cupping when facing illness.
There’s a grand irony in flying thousands of miles (often transfering through multiple airports in multiple continents) just to get somewhere to cup some coffee in a limited time. And when do we usually get a cold? Why, when we’ve been exposed to thousands of people from all over the world and then sealed up breathing the same air in a pressurized aluminum tube with them for 8 hours. Oh the joys! But when you only have 6 days to cup hundreds of coffees, and when you traveled 8,000 miles to do it… you find a way.
Is it possible?
First of all, strictly speaking, is it possible to cup coffee while you’re sick? The answer is yes. (By “sick” in this article, I’m referring to a cold or flu that gives you congestion, a sore throat, or above all a stuffed-up nose… if you’ve suddenly contracted the Great Siberian Itch, I can’t help you.)
You can cup coffee because your tongue is still presumably working. You have difficulty cupping coffee because your nose is all stuffed up. And as we all know (we do all know this, right everybody?) the olfactory component of sensory evaluation does the lion’s share of the work. Without being able to smell things, your ability to perceive the overall flavor is deeply diminished.
But it’s not completely eliminated. It’s important to note that even when you are “totally” stopped up, you’re usually still capable of smelling at a diminished level. If you don’t believe me, try inhaling deeply from a rose bud or other intense, floral scent the next time you have a cold. You might be surprised to find just how well you can still smell it. Nevertheless, it is generally true that you can’t smell nearly as well as you can when you’re 100% healthy.
Beyond your temporarily damaged ability to smell, you still have your ability to taste using your tongue. You can still discern sweetness, acidity, and especially body and mouthfeel. In fact, cupping coffee while sick can be a great way to force yourself to focus on body and mouthfeel, which is a category that most cuppers have difficulty evaluating consistently (I know it was difficult for me).
So yes, you can cup when you’re sick.
Should you do it?
Should you cup when you’re sick? This is a different question altogether. The answer is yes. And no.
If you can put off an important evaluation until after your E.N.T. gives you a clean bill, by all means, wait until the sun is shining again. But that’s often not possible.
For example, if the coffee is already roasted, and you’re just starting to get sick, it could be a week before your nose is clear, by which time the coffee has staled significantly. That’s a bit of a catch-22, but I’d err on the side of fresher coffee. Just do the best you can.
As I said above, many times I’ve been in situations where there’s a time constraint. It would be nice to wait a while, but it’s just not possible.
The really important thing when it comes to cupping coffee when you’re sick is to be honest about it — honest with others and honest with yourself. And that leads us to…
How should you cup coffee when you’re sick?
There are two key considerations; two things you need to ask yourself if you are going to cup coffee effectively when you’re sick:
1) How will my sickness affect my fellow cuppers?
2) How will my sickness affect my evaluation of the coffee?
1) When you are cupping alone, you obviously don’t have to worry about how your illness affects others. But in a group, it’s important to be up-front about your condition. If anyone asks you to leave, you should. However, I’ve found that if you forthrightly explain what’s going on, downplay the seriousness of it (assuming, of course, that it is indeed not serious), and come with a plan of action, most professionals are fine with sharing the room. After all, they’ve all been in the same situation at one time or another.
If there are enough cups on the table and you are not following strict competition protocols, you can designate one of the cups at each station as your personal cup. Make it the same cup for each sample, and make sure that everyone knows it’s the “sick” cup. Then take samples only from this one cup; no one else should taste from this cup. If possible, try to get your own cup of water for cleaning your spoon too and don’t share this one either.
If pushing off one cup to the side as the “sick cup” is impractical, simply wait for all other cuppers to pass through at least twice, then designate a “sick cup” and cup from that one. You won’t be able to try the coffee when it’s hot, but as we all know that’s not the most important phase anyway.
Finally, if even that would prove to be too distracting, simply wait for all other cuppers to finish completely, then have at it.
2) It’s very important to be honest with yourself when you’re cupping — sick or healthy. If you can’t discern something, do not just make it up.
I often teach my students to just write something, anything, even when they have no idea what to write because this tends to loosen them up and helps them to learn the process of tasting and notating. But eventually you have to grow out of this phase, and if you are still writing wild guesses in a professional environment and presenting them later as “cupping notes”, you’re not a good cupper. You’re anti-good.
Likewise, when you’re sick, despite my encouragements above (You can still taste with your tongue! You can kinda smell stuff, kinda), a lot of what you come up with might be less-than-usually accurate. Just be honest with yourself about it. Make a note on your cupping forms or later reports that these notes are sketchy at best.
Again, you can use your sickness as a blessing in disguise and focus in on non-aromatic components of the coffee, specifically acidity and mouthfeel. If you have ever had trouble grading these aspects accurately, getting a cold is the perfect time to hone your skills.
If at all possible, of course, you should cup the same coffees again when you’re at full strength. This can be one more good exercise for learning, too. Make sure to randomize and encode the samples, cup them all again when you’re feeling tip-top, then decode and reveal and find how well your “sick notes” match up with your “healthy notes.” There’s always something new to learn about the coffee, and about your own evaluation skills.
Just dive in.
Always take care of your health first, and always be mindful of the well-being of those around you. But if you take sensible precautions and remember not to treat your own notes too seriously, I encourage every coffee professional to keep tasting even when it feels like your sinuses are stuffed with cotton.
Basically, you should never be turning down an opportunity to hone your skills and broaden your knowledge. Getting sick is less than ideal for many reasons, but it’s part of life, and it can lead to some pretty interesting situations if you know how to look at it from the right angle.