Zest Exploring Flavour – What’s in a cup??

A cup is a cup is a cup. But maybe it’s not.

By Mandy DelVecchio

Did you know blue spoons can make yogurt taste “saltier”?

And strawberry-flavored mousse tastes 10% sweeter when served from a white container rather than a black one.

Well they can, according to studies.

What does this mean for coffee? Can the shape, colour and material of your cup affect the flavour perception of your coffee?

According to studies, the colour, size, shape and even feel of a cup can have an affect on perceived flavour of a brew.

We say ‘perceived’ because at the end of the process (when a barista pours the coffee) not much can physiologically change the intended flavour, short of adding sugar (or perhaps whiskey) into your cup. But the psychology of taste is something else.

Science has proven our sensory perceptions can take in a number of factors outside the actual product we taste – sometimes even our mood or the music we’re listening to can affect our taste. We’ve know this to be the case with food as this has been explored in many studies over the years.

“…not only the attributes of the food that influence taste perception, and instead, environmental/contextual factors also greatly impact the resultant perception of taste”

But, is it the same story with beverages – namely, coffee?

A study conducted in Australia back in 2013, by crossmodal research legend, Charles Spence, explored whether the colour of the cup you drink from can affect the flavour perception of the coffee.

Researchers served 18 people the same coffee from 3 similarly shaped, different coloured mugs – one clear, one white and one blue. They were asked to rate sweetness, aroma, bitterness, quality, and acceptability in each of the cups.

“The color of the mug really does seem to have an impact,” said Charles, head of the crossmodal research laboratory at Oxford University.

Results found that the white mug was associated with a more “intense” flavour than the clear. And the blue mug fell somewhere in between. However, when it came to perceived sweetness, the white fell short. With the brews from the blue and clear mug reported to appear more sweet.

Though they can’t say for sure yet, Spence hypothesises a lot of the perception comes from past experience.

“When we see something new, our brain might be predicting what the experience will be like based on past experiences, and thereby altering the experience.”

In the case of the white mug. Because the white mug accentuates the “brownness” of the coffee, researchers say this may have influenced the perceived intensity of the coffee.

Colour isn’t everything though. The shape and size of a cup can also affect the experience, as can where you grew up. In another recent cross-cultural study consumers from Colombia, China and the UK highlighted the “complex nature of shape-flavour interactions”.

When coffee drinkers were asked to look at a number of mugs and record their expected taste from each cup there were some clear differences underlined.

Results overall found coffee was expected to be more aromatic from narrower diameter mugs, both more bitter and more intense from shorter mugs, and coffee was expected to be sweeter from wider diameter mugs.

Several cultural differences were also noted, such as the Chinese prefer smaller cups, overall, and if you’re from the UK, you expect a hotter beverage. But, on value, unsurprisingly, participants from all countries were willing to pay more for a drink out of a larger cup.

While aesthetics play a major role in our perceptions, the feel and weight of a cup has also been reported to have an affect on perceived flavour. But it’s not only in the perceptions, according to reports, the shape or material of a cup can alter the delivery of the beverage, accentuating particular flavour qualities.

Such studies have been integral to the food and beverage industries. Wine producers pioneering the cup game, most recently breweries have also taken heed of the results. US beer company, Samuel Adams, one of the first to market themselves in this space, releasing “The Perfect Pint Glass”, in 2007. You may have noticed several breweries followed suit in recent times, with branded glasses reflecting studies on perception of “fruity”, “floral” & “carbonated” qualities.

For coffee companies it might be more difficult, you’d need a different cup for every origin, every blend, every brew type, each a unique experience.

It’s being done though, and Scandinavian ceramics company, Figgjo Norway is on trend. Afoot of some independent research, Figgjo released a line of products that speak particularly to this theory. Providing coffee drinkers with a holistic coffee drinking experience through promoting the use of different shaped cups.

Figgjo promote 3 products for 3 different coffee experiences. The tulip shape (smaller opening) to intensify the flavour, an open cup (larger at the top) for enhancing aromas and a split cup (tapered neck), which helps to deliver fragrances.

Not to be materialistic, Norway, but are ceramics even the way to go?

Apparently, yes. According other studies.

On material, when comparing the noticeable differences between stainless steel, glass, plastic and ceramic cups for coffee consumption, ceramic wins out.

Plastic delivers flavour quite well, uninterrupted – first use. However, nuanced flavour can remain in the cup, so switching between espresso and a more delicate brew, or even tea, is not going to hold up for plastic sippers. Stainless Steel retains heat well but imparts a slight flavour of its own, while glass is flavour neutral but doesn’t retain heat as well as ceramic or steel cups.

(NB: And ‘single use’ cups of any material, environmentally speaking, are in terrible taste.)

Research in mind, conclusively, which is the best cup to drink your coffee from?

Impossible to conclude. We haven’t even begun to discuss emotional psychological responses to all of the variables.

My sister, for instance, a zealous tea drinker, will go to all lengths to brew the perfect cuppa. Storage, extraction time, origin, water temperature and strength of her cup of tea are all perfectly, almost scientifically, controlled in her brewing.

Though, of the final variable – science doesn’t even come into play. She swears every tea tastes best in her battered, tea-stained, Jamie Oliver, “Cheeky Monkey” cup, circa 2007. A gift from a dear friend, given to her when she was living in London feeling very free and happy, and, of course, drinking a lot of tea. Go figure.

While we know flavour is something that can be measured, altered and perceived using a variety of methods and presentations, what we can’t ever really account for is taste. A complex beast selective to every unique individual and each unique experience – taste is terribly difficult to contain, no matter the cup.

However, we can certainly have fun exploring!