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Can Q and Covid Co-Exist? Yess They Can!!

Below is an article published in CoffeeTalk Magazine about an International Coffee Consulting Q-Arabica class held in June 2020

Covid and Q Grading

Tales from the first Covid Q- Class


You can be a good roaster without being a good cupper, but you will never be a great roaster without being a great cupper. Cupping is the tool great roasters use to evaluate and create the perfect roasts for worthy coffees.

The industry standard for cupping protocols is the CQI Q grading system.   It is not the only cupping methodology but for a roaster working to source green coffee, build profiles or maintain consistency it is simply the best one. This is why many great roasters are also Q-Graders.

Cupping is sometimes a solitary effort, but more often it involves a group. It could be a QA/QC team, green buyers or the roasting staff. Cupping together builds calibration within the team which is crucial for several job functions.

The question with Covid 19  in our lives is, “How can we be safe and still cup together?” That is indeed a tough question. The answer involves exploring two other questions. 1) What protocols can I change to maintain a safe environment? 2) What is my fear tolerance?

Possible Protocol Changes

There is a lot of stuff out there through the SCA, CQI, and NCA that talk about different cupping protocols. Most involve gyrations around a personal rinse cup for your spoon and a shot glass to transfer the coffee. The goal of these changes is to isolate, or put a gap between you and the other cuppers when dealing with coffee from the same cup. It can be done. It feels weird at first. And if you can maintain a 6 foot distance at the cupping table while enacting the new protocols you can be fairly safe.

It does, however, create a fundamental question around the cupping table: Do we really need to be cupping this or can we do something else that is simpler?  For many of the functions of a roasting company a tasting is just not going to work. For some it might. Green coffee buying, blend component replacements, and profile development may not work well as a tasting. Cupping, whether with original or new protocols, is the right tool. This brings us to our second question.

Fear Tolerance

It is not being suggested that anyone should stick their head in the sand or be glib about the safety of the people in the company, but certain precautions and personal responsibility can mitigate risk to a reasonable level.

Being symptom aware: Ask employees to stay home if they are showing any signs. Checking temperature before entering the workplace or at least the cupping room is a solid idea.

Get tested:  Many areas offer free testing. A nasal swab will let you know if you are currently infected.  An antibody test lets you know if you have been infected in the past. If you think you have any symptoms then you need to be tested. Both of these tests give you results in two to three days.

Enhanced cleaning of the lab: Have hand sanitizer for entering the cupping area. Wipe down surfaces between cuppings.


 How to run a safe Q class in a COVID world

A Q class just ran in the Los Angeles area. Before holding the class a long debate was held wrestling the two questions above: ‘Should protocols be adapted?’ and ‘What is the fear tolerance of all involved?’

For those unfamiliar, a Q-Class involves 6 days of training and testing where students are in class together for 8-10 hours per day. They are in both a classroom and cupping lab. There are meetings at the cupping table 12 different times. The goal is to get all of the students calibrated on grading coffee so they have to cup from the same coffee sample.

At the end of the debate the following was decided: 

Because the global effort of the Q grading system is to calibrate cuppers worldwide, much effort is put into teaching and learning protocols that will be strictly followed by all Q Graders. To change the protocols for the US, or any other country, would mean having to adapt and retrain over 8000 Q Graders on any new protocols.
It is fairly unrealistic to think that a class of this duration, in close quarters, and needing to sample from the same cup, that protocols or classroom behaviors that would keep an infection from spreading to all students over a 6 day course. – If someone has it, then everyone is going to get it.

So now it is up to the teacher and the students to understand their personal responsibility and fear threshold. The instructor sent out an email to all students that signed up for the original class that was to be held in March but postponed 3 times. The email laid out the situation and basically said the following, “If you are showing any symptoms, don’t come! If you are healthy and willing to come, realize that if one person in the class has it we will all get it. We will not be changing any of the classroom protocols for the training. We will however be isolating our work in the lab from the rest of the company. Just because we are willing to take the risk does not mean we should risk infecting others.”

It turns out students were pretty eager to sign up. There were 6 new students, 1 recertification student and 3 retake students. Add in the Instructor and the Assistant Instructor it was a group of 12.

Prior to the class the instructor got tested. The results arrived the day before class – negative for Covid. Another student took personal responsibility because they participated in the BLM rallies. They took two tests and received to negative results prior to class.

The class went well. The group isolated from the rest of the company with a separate bathroom, lunch area, and lots of hand sanitizer stations.

The instructor waited until 5 days following the class and got both the Antibody test and the nasal swab. The instructor did not have antibodies AND was negative for Covid 19 currently. It would be reasonable (but not 100%) that if the instructor did not pick up the virus during the class then the students didn’t either.

Personal responsibility combined with a proper respect for the reality of the disease can create an environment where life can go on, Q Classes can run, and cupping can just be cupping.