Commonly seen in old Western films, a spittoon is a vessel in which a cowboy would spit out his tobacco with a resounding “ding” before starting a barroom brawl.
Spitting in public has long fallen out of favour. However, many people are unaware that spittoons are still used today – as a key piece of equipment in coffee sensory analysis.
Industry professionals typically taste dozens of coffees a day, and so, they often spit these out into spittoons. They do this because swallowing large quantities of caffeine can have adverse short-term effects on the body.
Additionally, it may start to alter the palate so cup tastes are unable to detect delicate aromas and subtle flavours.
To learn more about the role spittoons play in the specialty coffee industry, I spoke with owner and head roaster at Sumo Coffee Roasters, Daniel Horbat.
What is a spittoon?
A spittoon is a large bowl-like receptacle which is specifically designed to be spat into.
The funnel-shaped top extends the surface area for spitters to target, while the bowl beneath collects the spit until it is cleaned.
They are typically made from metal, most commonly brass. However, they have also been made from porcelain, particularly in their early days of use.
Although it is a far less socially acceptable practice nowadays, spitting in public was once a common occurrence.
In the 19th century, spittoons were located throughout public spaces, including homes, bars, hotels, and even the US House of Representatives. They were positioned so members of the public could spit into them instead of directly onto the floor.
During that time, one of the most common uses of spittoons was for tobacco-chewing. Before the rise of smoking tobacco, this was a popular habit, particularly in the US. Once chewed, the tobacco was disposed of by spitting into a spittoon.
Additionally, spittoons also feature in Chinese cultural history. From the 1600s to the early 1900s, during the Qing Dynasty, porcelain spittoons were often used in ceremonial practices.
However, during the 1900s, spittoons fell out of favour. In the US, this was due to a major health campaign as the rise of flu and tuberculosis epidemics fuelled the anti-spitting movement. Gradually, spittoons were removed from all public spaces.
Despite no longer being used on a mass scale, spittoons still play a vital role in taste testing processes across the food and drink industry.
Why do roasters need spittoons?
For products that should not be consumed in large quantities, such as wine and coffee, spittoons are an essential tool for sensory analysts.
They enable tasters to sample the product and discreetly spit it out instead of swallowing. This allows them to continue tasting many different cups without becoming intoxicated or suffering from caffeine overload.
“Spittoons are often used in the cupping of coffees,” says Daniel, who is also the 2019 World Cup Tasters Champion. “As coffee has lots of caffeine, many choose to spit instead of swallow when evaluating a coffee’s quality.
“This way, you are able to taste for longer periods before the tongue becomes overwhelmed by the multitude of flavours.”
Cupping refers to the process of tasting coffee in order to identify, evaluate, and grade its taste profile. During a cupping process, a sensory analyst or cup taster will swill the coffee in their mouth.
They do this using a technique called “slurping.” The cup taster uses a spoon to take a small volume of coffee from the cup. Then, they will “slurp” it to spread the liquid across the palate, allowing them to get a sense of all the flavours.
Some cup tasters may choose to swallow while others may choose to spit the sample out into a spittoon. The cupping process is repeated in order to taste a number of different cups – typically between 10 and 15 in one sitting.
Through the cupping process, a trained cup taster can determine the quality, flavour profile, aromas, tasting notes, body, and mouthfeel of the coffee. Coffee cupping is used by Q graders and the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) to award coffees with cupping scores.
As with any product, regular testing is critical to the ongoing success of a business, which is why cupping is an essential process in coffee roasting.
Sensory analysis helps coffee roasters maintain high quality standards. By regularly testing their coffees, roasters can ensure their products are free of flaws caused by roasting or issues with the crop itself.
For instance, the potato defect is a flaw commonly found in Central and West African coffees, and is difficult to spot. By holding a cupping session, roasters will be able to identify this flaw before the batch is released to customers.
“In my opinion, cupping is the most crucial protocol in a roastery,” Daniel says. “By evaluating the coffee, roasters can understand what changes need to be done to their roast profile to get the desired result. It is also an excellent tool to ensure roasters are consistent with their offerings.”
Additionally, cupping is an effective way to test a new product before it reaches the market. This can be done by roasting the same coffee using different roast profiles.
The roasters should prepare the coffee in the same way to ensure fair comparison. Finally, each cup must be tasted to identify the roast profile that is the most successful.
It is highly recommended roasters get their staff involved in the cupping, so everyone can learn from the process. By developing their tasting skills, staff can learn how to identify different notes and characteristics that various terroirs provide.
What to consider when buying a spittoon
When buying a spittoon, roasters will need to consider how and where it will be used.
For instance, will the spittoon be used during internal cupping sessions with the team, or offered to customers as part of educational tasting sessions?
Its intended use will determine the spittoons design. For example, if it is being used internally, roasters can opt for a simple, budget-friendly option.
“We don’t use a classic tall spittoons in our roastery,” Daniel explains. “Instead, we have special spitting cups made from aluminium.”
When choosing a spittoon, Daniel recommends roasters choose a model made from a durable material. Furthermore, he suggests it has a wider opening to avoid spilling.
“Since we use special spitting cups, they have a slimmer shape towards the end. This is to ensure it fits comfortably in your hand, as you don’t want to be distracted while cupping.”
What’s more, if the spittoon is placed in a public-facing space, it should look presentable. Roasters who are planning to host public cupping sessions should choose a subtle and modest design.
The traditional brass colour is a good choice, as it is simple and muted. Furthermore, it is unlikely customers could mistake it for something else, such as a bin.
It is also recommended that roasters invest in multiple, smaller spittoons instead of a single large one. This is because some customers may be put off by the idea of sharing a single spittoon.
Regardless of the style or size of the chosen spittoon, regular care and maintenance are essential. The contents of the spittoon must be disposed of safely, and the vessel should be cleaned and disinfected regularly.
Important to note is that the chosen disinfectant should not react with or damage the material of the spittoon. Additionally, roasters should dispose of the spittoons contents responsibly, for example, through an outdoor drain located far from the roastery.
MTPak Coffee understands the hard work roasters put into cupping and tasting coffee. Like you, our team is dedicated to providing consumers with high-quality, great-tasting coffee.
Our Education Centre is full of information around roasting, sustainability, and packaging trends to help keep roasters updated on the industry and consumer expectations.
Furthermore, we offer sustainable, high-barrier coffee packaging made from renewable materials such as kraft and rice paper, and lined with polylactic acid (PLA). Our high-quality coffee pouches will perfectly preserve the freshness and distinct qualities of your coffee.