Bitter Coffee? Change The Color Of Your Cup
In research published recently in the journal Flavour by my colleagues and I, it appears that cup color plays a big part in the way coffee drinkers perceive the taste of their morning cup.
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In Australia, around a billion cups of coffee a year are consumed in cafés, restaurants and other outlets.
Even Britain, a nation famous for its fondness for tea, has in recent years seen a dramatic rise in its coffee consumption, with an estimated 70 million cups drunk each day.
Given the economic incentive to keep consumers drinking coffee, café owners, restaurateurs, crockery designers and manufacturers will, presumably, be interested in anything that can help to enhance the multisensory coffee-drinking experience for their clientele.
And, in research published recently in the journal Flavour by my colleagues and I, it appears that cup color plays a big part in the way coffee drinkers perceive the taste of their morning cup.
One day, at my local cafe…
The idea behind this study came about serendipitously. A barista once told me that when coffee is consumed from a white, ceramic mug, it tastes bitterer than when drunk from a clear, glass mug.
Note that these two mug types are among the most commonly used vessels to serve coffee in Australian cafés and restaurants. My colleagues and I, then, sought to establish the validity of this claim, which, to our knowledge, had not been tested before. Although many studies have been published on color flavor interactions over the years, there is a lack of research on the psychological impact of the cups from which we drink. This paucity is surprising given, as we saw above, how many cups of coffee are drunk every day.
White and Clear are Popular Colored Mugs
Image by trophygeek.
Coffee and Contrast
The notion that the color of the receptacle could impact taste/flavor perception might relate to work by consumer studies researcher Betina Piqueras-Fiszman and colleagues,
which showed that a red, strawberry-flavored mousse presented on a white plate was rated as 10% sweeter and 15% more flavorful than when exactly the same food was presented on a black plate.
Taking the principal one stage further, and given the conversation with the barista, we proposed that brown may be associated with bitterness (or, perhaps, negatively associated with sweetness) and that coffee from a white mug should be rated as somewhat more bitter than exactly the same coffee when consumed from a transparent mug.
It is possible that another mechanism might affect the perception of taste.
Here, if light, opaque, milky brown coffee were to be associated with bitterness, then a light blue mug should intensify the brown of the coffee as it is brown’s complementary color; as such the brown of the coffee will “pop out”. This, in turn, would be expected to elevate ratings of bitterness relative to the same coffee when served in a transparent mug.
Some famous examples of the use of this “simultaneous contrast” mechanism are Heinz’s use of a greenish-blue can to set off the red-orange color of its beans and sauce, and Cadbury’s use of purple packaging to enhance the color of its chocolate.
In one experiment, the white mug enhanced the rated “intensity” of the coffee flavor relative to the transparent mug – but given slight physical differences in the mugs used, a second experiment was conducted using identical glass mugs with colored sleeves.
The Takeaway Message
Once again, the color of the mug was shown to influence participants’ rating of the coffee. In particular, the coffee was rated as less sweet in the white mug as compared to the transparent and blue mugs.
Our study clearly shows that the color of a mug does influence the perceived taste/flavor of coffee. Interestingly, Dutch psychologist Ap Dijksterhuis suggested that because of the use of the word “strong” in advertising, consumers often confuse a coffee’s strength or intensity with its “bitterness”. In our research we found a trend in bitterness ratings that mirrored intensity ratings.
Find Your Perfect Color
We also found that any reduction in the “sweetness” of the coffee when presented from a white mug might also be expected to increase perceived bitterness (or strength).
This supports research (mentioned above) which shows brown, among other colors, is negatively associated with sweetness. The cross modal effect of the color of the mug on the flavor of the coffee reported here suggests that café owners, baristas, as well as crockery manufacturers should carefully consider the color of their mugs. The potential effects may spell the difference between a one-time purchase and a return customer.