Multisensory Experience of Coffee

By Jim Clugger


Littorary - Colorful Stacked Coffee Cups


Whether conscious or not, we rarely drink anything without first having made a prediction about how it will taste.

This idea is presented by Charles Spence, Professor of Experimental Psychology at Somerville College, in a review that examines the influence of the coffee cup on the experience of taste.

We all have our favorite coffee cup. What is it about that cup that makes it special? Professor Spence’s work points to the physical characteristics of the cup as potentially holding some of the answers.

The influence of a vessel on beverage taste is perhaps best known for wine. The shape of a wine glass is designed to concentrate volatile compounds evaporating from the wine around the rim of the glass for maximum olfactory sensation. The stem of a wine glass not only looks elegant but also prevents heat from the hand warming the contents of the glass. Glass is a material well known for having a neutral flavor profile allowing the pure and unadulterated flavor of wine to be enjoyed.

The influence of a cup’s characteristics on the taste of coffee is less understood than wine, though interest in the relationship is growing. Specialty coffee culture has been flourishing in the U.S. and internationally for decades. The refinement of coffee cultivation, roasting, and brewing practices creates the need for improved coffee equipment and accessories to fully develop and enjoy the nuances of refined coffee.

In terms of accessories, the coffee cup has an outsized impact on the experience of drinking coffee. Research points to specific characteristics of coffee cups that are important including color, weight, size, texture, and shape.

Color: The wide variation in color can result in a similarly wide impact on flavor perception. The following relationships between flavor and color were identified: sweet – clear and pink; fruity (acidity) – green and yellow; bold – orange; mild – blue and yellow.

Weight: While not specifically for coffee, heavier drinks have been rated as tasting better, perhaps drawing from a connection between weight and quality.

Size: Smaller cups are perceived to hold more aromatic and intensely flavored coffee. Wider cups are perceived to hold sweeter coffees.

Texture: Rough textures are associated with a dry finish and increased acidity. Smooth textures provide a sweeter association.

Shape: Roundness (i.e., cylindrical rather conical or otherwise shaped) lead to an increase in sweet flavor perception.

Spence credits sensational transference, a psychological concept that considers the possibility of transferring one experience to another, for the sensations imbued to the coffee by physical characteristics of the cup.

For a practical example of sensational transference, if we are thinking about a green apple while drinking coffee our senses might be more attuned to the tart sensations of acidity that are present in both the apple and the coffee. Furthermore, the many associations that we have developed between green and acidity in taste, for example, green apple, lime, kiwi, and others can associate the color in general to a taste of acidity. Sensational transference can help to explain why coffee drinkers would rate the taste of a coffee higher in acidity when drinking from a green cup.

In the research, Spence claims, “Crossmodally congruent features could potentially be used to improve the overall drinking experience when consuming coffee, perhaps by drawing the taster’s attention to something in their tasting experience that they like/appreciate, hence making it more salient to them.”

Crossmodally congruent features is a concept that describes when your sensations align with your expectations, for example when you expect something to taste sweet based on its appearance and it in fact does.

With the ability to suppress or enhance flavors based on the characteristics of the cup, the barista and home connoisseur have another lever to control the experience of drinking coffee and make it better.

The body of research is compelling but appears to be missing one key characteristic of the coffee cup and that is the material.

It is generally accepted that glass and ceramic are preferred over plastic and metal because of the neutral taste and smell profiles of the former and the poor taste and smell profiles of the latter. Noting that performing a scientifically controlled experiment to tease out differences in psychological effects of materials can be confounded by other characteristics of the cup and the physio-chemical influences of the materials. And yet, a scientific study of the differences in taste experience based on materials would be useful to test the generally accepted knowledge and reveal how the experience may be influenced by physio-chemical and psychological causes.

Spence implores industry and academia to work together to implement empirically based design of coffee cups to add value to the experience. We here at Littorary are paying attention to the research of Spence and others to create the best drinking experience possible.

Our designs rest on three key principles: improved experience, health oriented, and environmentally sustainable. We believe technology and design innovations can revolutionize how Americans and the world consume food and beverage. Please stay tuned to our website, blog, and upcoming Kickstarter page as we unveil our first product.

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