On October 3, 2020, James Hoffmann hosted The World’s Largest Coffee Tasting. Much like any normal cupping, this involved tasting and comparing a few different coffees, but there was one fundamental difference: the event was completely virtual.
Virtual events in the coffee sector have been the subject of discussion for some time now, largely thanks to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the various physical distancing measures that have come into place around the world. They have grown significantly in popularity in recent months, with one of the most popular ideas being virtual cuppings.
However, the question remains: how do people taste coffee together virtually? And what does a rise in virtual events mean for an industry that has traditionally been people-focused and driven by face-to-face interactions?
Read on to learn more about the event, what it entailed, the records it broke, and the role that virtual events have to play in the coffee sector going forward.
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The Second World’s Largest Coffee Tasting
The World’s Largest Coffee Tasting was held on October 3, 2020 at 3PM UK time. It consisted of a livestreamed cupping setup hosted by James Hoffmann, Chairman of Square Mile Coffee Roasters and a well-known YouTuber who has worked in the coffee sector for more than 15 years.
While this event did break the known record for the highest number of people simultaneously tasting coffee, it was actually the second event of its kind to be hosted by Hoffmann, after the first was held in 2019.
However, while the first event broke the record in 2019 with 3,400 participants, the 2020 edition of the event more than tripled that. At one point, more than 10,800 people were simultaneously watching the livestream, and more than 17,000 tasting kits were sold.
It’s important to note that this popularity is filling a new space. The fact that almost 11,000 people attended concurrently shows a growing consumer interest in cupping, and that there is huge potential for wider-scale cupping events.
Practically, these are difficult to organise in person, even without taking the impact of the pandemic into consideration. Organising a cupping session for any more than a few dozen people is logistically difficult. Even in a post-Covid-19 world, the ability to leverage virtual platforms could be incredibly useful.
A Recap Of The Event
The event started with Hoffmann giving a run-down of the contents of the kit, which included:
- Five 30g packs of coffee roasted by Square Mile, labelled A to E
- A sachet of Third Wave Water mineral packets
- A grind size sample
Square Mile estimate that around 17,300 of these kits were shipped around the country, with each one costing GBP £7.50.
At the beginning of the event, Hoffmann allowed time for participants to grind their coffee, mix their water, and organise their cupping setup. He then proceeded to cup the five coffees, encouraging people to do the same simultaneously and take notes on them.
Hoffmann noted that the coffees had been organised in such a way that participants were best suited to tasting them in alphabetical order initially, before going back and comparing them in a different order and noting the contrast between the two methods.
At the time that the video ended, it had more than 20,000 views in total. At the time of writing (October 12, 2020), it has more than 115,000. Between the YouTube chat and a separate JustGiving page, participants raised more than US $35,000 for World Coffee Research.
What Does This Mean For The Sector?
With more than 115,000 views to date and more than 10,800 concurrent viewers at one point, this is one of the largest and most successful virtual coffee events that has ever been held.
However, as more and more coffee events are cancelled thanks to the restrictions on major gatherings (especially on an international scale), the success of this event could be a barometer for what is to come. Furthermore, it shows that there is real potential for interactive virtual events in the coffee sector – something which has never been done on a large scale before.
Hoffmann spoke about holding another similar event in the future at different times to make it more accessible to those in regions such as Southeast Asia and Oceania (where the event was held well into the evening). However, its global popularity despite the unsociable hours for some shows that specialty coffee is coming to terms with the reality of virtual events.
Despite the fact that many major events have been cancelled, including World of Coffee and the 2020 World Coffee Championships, organisations across the industry are adapting and utilising the tools they have at their disposal.
For example, other events such as Rikolto’s Coffee Virtual Dialogues and ÉLAN RDC’s Exploring Congolese Coffee webinar series only show that the wider coffee industry is changing its approach to events in these difficult, unprecedented times.
Finally, virtual events also offer different stakeholders across the supply chain the opportunity to discuss a number of topics. Greater communication helps supply chain actors to develop better and longer-lasting relationships.
It also allows a free exchange of knowledge up and down the chain. For example, if inexperienced producers learn more about cupping from roasters, they may be better placed to design their own producer-led cupping protocol.
While the World’s Largest Coffee Tasting broke an unofficial record and saw more than US $35,000 raised for World Coffee Research, it is also a sign that the wider industry is taking a new approach to events.
As the effects of Covid-19 continue to ripple throughout the coffee industry, the success of this event could mean that audiences and would-be event attendees are happy to participate in livestreams, webinars, and other virtual discussions, interactive or otherwise. While the fact that global events are currently infeasible is disappointing, it is still encouraging to see unity among the coffee community at times like these.
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Photo credits: Square Mile Coffee Roasters
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