When Hannah Cassedy walked into the kitchen and spotted the beautiful roast chicken her sister had just made, she was hit with the smell of rotting flesh. “I went to the bathroom, and I just vomited. And I was like, I don’t think I can eat chicken ever again,” she recalls. This was mid-2020, and her sense of smell was just returning after a bout with COVID-19, but in a “very strong, potent, gross, and nasty” way.

At the end of 2019, Cassedy worked in coffee as a hospitality and bar trainer and had been in the industry for nearly a decade; a sensory experience surrounded everything she did in life and work. But it all changed when she got sick and tasted nothing in her coffee. In 2017, she competed in the US Barista Competition and discussed senses and how being pregnant impacted her. This sensory loss was on a different level. Cassedy explains, “What I was experiencing was complete, total deprivation of my smell.”

When she got COVID-19, she was pregnant, and the virus was not publicly known. After running a battery of tests, the doctors put her on an inhaler and breathing treatment. Months later, she returned, still unable to taste or smell, and they asked, “What do you want us to say? You’re just pregnant.” She has been vaccinated, boosted, and reinfected twice, losing her senses each time. The first instance could be explained by doctors not knowing about COVID, but with the reinfection in 2021, Cassedy’s experience was dismissed as seasonal allergies. A week later, she was back in the hospital with a lung infection.

In addition to losing their sense of smell and taste, Cassedy had brain fog, splotchy skin, and now, asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). When she lost their sense of taste, she dialed in espresso with visual cues, time, and weight readings “like every good barista would do.” And when it did return, but with unpleasant distortion, she began drinking lattes, sometimes with sugar, to ease the bitter and chemical flavors she experienced with coffee. Cassedy now remotely works as a financial analyst at a cannabis company.

***

My original premise of this article was to set out and learn about how coffee people have been dealing with temporary or permanent sensory loss due to COVID and the implications on the specialty coffee industry.

It seems improbable that an industry with 125 million people involved—25 million of which are smallholder farmers—has few people who have experienced COVID-related sensory loss. I understand that medical records are inherently private and that sharing about sensory loss—even a temporary one—could affect your career. I hope that knowing others have been through this could help you feel less alone and isolated, as well as give space to a topic that isn’t widely discussed.

Smell loss is a common condition that affects 5-15% of the general population, according to a literature review paper. There are several types of smell loss, including complete absence (“anosmia”), reduced (“hyposmia”), and distorted (“parosmia”). It can be caused by viral infections—like SARS-CoV-2—and others like neurodegenerative conditions, some medications, and radiation treatment for cancer.

For two people I interviewed, smell and taste loss lasted a handful of days—bracketed by other symptoms like fever and fatigue—and both of them fully recovered their health.

“I just remember being in the shower—the day I stopped being able to smell and taste—and my soap not smelling like anything. And then I was just like, fuck,” shares Evan Gilman, who had COVID in September 2022. His Creative Director position at Royal Coffee entails teaching people how to taste and writing tasting notes for coffee. For him, coffee tasted like nothing, and everything else was “flattened.” Salt and capsaicin spiciness were the only two things he could somewhat taste, so he found himself putting salt and hot sauce on his food.

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The experience made him think about what to do if the loss was permanent. “If I’m not able to taste, then I’ll have to take a completely different trajectory,” he says. It also reminded him of how he teaches people to taste. “I want to give a little bit of room for those people who can’t taste quite as well, especially now since it’s way more widespread than it was before.”

Reiko Piekarski is the Director of Coffee Programs at Fortuna Enterprises in Greensboro, North Carolina. In January 2023 she and her husband, who is in the wine industry, both contracted COVID. When she saw the fever and brain fog begin affecting her husband, she knew she wasn’t too far behind. In a way, she had a preview of what was coming and was able to mentally prepare as much as she could, as well as preemptively take days off from work. Piekarski and her husband had similar symptoms, which is not always the case for COVID.

Piekarski credits the combination of rest and approaching it as a learning experience to be helpful in her recovery. “We generally talk about sensory a lot and how there are a lot of descriptors pertaining to mouthfeel and tactile,” she said. “The two of us, what we did was, ‘Hey, let’s take this experience and use it as a learning or relearning kind of experience. Because those usual senses that we take for granted—the sweet and the acidity—all those levels are completely muted out and are not distracting our other perceptions.”

For the heck of it, she also tried out coffee triangulations. The coffee tasted blank, she says. “Even though I couldn’t smell anything, I could still at least identify the one that was not similar, just based off of the weight and texture of coffee.”

“Sensory really comes down to an immediate connection that you can connect that new experience to something that you’ve already experienced in the past. And it’s just this giant mind map in your own head.” Now, in her trainings, she encourages those to think about the tactile, mouthfeel, and finish—not just on the flavor notes that jump out.

A recently published study by Global Consortium for Chemosensory Research and the Monell Chemical Senses Center found that “COVID-positive patients reported a 21 percent reduction in taste intensity, a 47 percent reduction in smell intensity and a 17 percent reduction in oral irritant intensity, when compared with the group reporting no symptoms.”

For those seeking to reconcile their current sensory experience with their pre-COVID memory bank, there are kits and guides available to re-training your senses. AbScent is a UK-registered charity formed in 2019, supporting people who are experiencing the distressing effects of smell loss. Research has shown that smell training is an effective tool, with 30-40% of patients seeing significant improvement, says Do-Yeon Cho, M.D., director of the Comprehensive Smell and Taste Clinic at the University of Alabama at Birmingham

***

Long COVID is loosely defined as symptoms of the viral infection that linger after four weeks (the time frame varies in definition). You can recover from COVID and then see returning or new symptoms. You can also be asymptomatic and show symptoms a few weeks later (which may be interpreted as not knowing you had COVID in the first place). It may also trigger other health conditions. The Patient-Led Research Collaborative, organized by people who have had or currently have Long COVID led a seven-month survey in 2020 that identified 205 symptoms. According to a review of research, 10% of COVID-positive people have Long COVID.

Though a major one, sensory loss is not the only Long COVID symptom that significantly impacts coffee people. Cassedy had brain fog that affected her ability to remember regulars’ names and drinks, and would catch herself zoning out at work. Piekarski tried to join a meeting from her bed, but her “brain was doing the spinning wheel of trying to load.”

A common symptom of Long COVID is post-exertional malaise (PEM), which the Mayo Clinic describes as “a flare in symptoms or the appearance of new symptoms after exertion, often manifesting after a characteristic 24-hour delay; however, 12-48 hours is common. Physical activity, cognitive overexertion, and sensory overload may all trigger PEM.”

For Ezra Spier, his PEM is triggered by cognitive activity, such as video calls and in-person interactions with friends. “Sometime between one and five hours from now, I’m going to get a wave of fatigue that’s going to conk me out for the rest of the day by having a half-hour conversation with you,” he told me. Spier is a self-employed operations and technology consultant who recently worked with Red Fox Coffee Merchants. Approximately one year ago, he had COVID symptoms of fever, headache, and cold that disappeared within a week, and he felt fine. Then, the PEM started. “I remember one day I went for a little bit of a walk, and for two days afterward, I was just wrecked,” he says. “I used to spend six hours a day on Zoom calls talking with my clients, doing really intense technical work, and now I struggle with focus.”

Spier briefly tried to work in January but has otherwise had to live off savings. In addition to PEM, he has postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS), which one study found affected 79% of people with Long COVID. His heart rate shoots up to 130bpm when he stands up, and there’s a noticeable difference between sitting up and lying down. “I basically have to spend almost all the day lying down,” he shares. “The bottom line for me is I can’t work because I can’t communicate with people.”

***

The New York State Insurance Fund (NYSIF), the state’s largest workers’ compensation carrier, released a report in early 2023 that compiled data on COVID worker’s compensation claims. Almost one-third of the workers have or had Long COVID, of which 18% could not return to work (5% of COVID claimants). Keep in mind that this data is only covering those who contracted COVID while on the job.

A US survey published in February 2023 found that those with Long COVID were more likely to be unemployed and had a lesser likelihood of having full-time employment.

In the coffee industry, we’ve seen COVID discussed in the context of cafes pivoting to takeout or shutting down, short staffing because someone is sick, or forming unions because COVID exposed issues. But not much about the long-term effects of taste and smell distortion or loss. Our retail sector contains workers who are constantly interacting with people and also, in the US, less likely to have paid sick days or health insurance. Green buyers and producers rely on their senses for scoring coffee, not to mention the physical exertion that is required to pick coffee.

If you have Long COVID, Spier recommends reading “The Long Covid Survivor Guide” and finding forums where others share similar experiences. “It can happen to anybody,” he says. “I want people who are struggling to know that they are really not alone, and it’s hard for us to talk about it.”

Jenn Chen (@thejennchen) is an Editor At Large at Sprudge Media Network. Read more Jenn Chen on Sprudge.

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