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Can the cup affect the taste of coffee?

Rob Ward, one of La Cimbali’s coffee specialists says that numerous studies have proven that the colour and shape of a coffee cup affects the taste of the beverage inside.

Ward gives the example of an experiment where when subjects were blindfolded only one in five could tell whether the beverage they were drinking was flavoured orange. When the subjects were allowed to see what they were drinking, in an orange cup, all of them could identify the orange flavour. In a similar test, Ward says participants thought coffee served in a white mug tasted less sweet than in a transparent or blue mug.

At the London Coffee Festival La Cimbali conducted its own sensory experiments in order for guests to experience the sensory conundrums for themselves. Ward likens the experience to school biology classes where the ‘map’ broke down the tongue into regions of sensation – bitter in the back, sour on the sides, salty on the front edge and sweet at the tip, with the tongue’s posterior important for detecting the fifth sense, umami.

Visitors at the festival sampled the same coffee from three different cup shapes and all reported very different opinions on taste, flavour and aroma. The cup shapes and the responses received were:

Split

The wide shape of this split design enhanced the aromatics when the coffee was smelt in the cup. The liquid is said to have been delivered with a much broader spread and acidity was perceived more clearly.

The split cup is designed for coffees with intense fruity and floral aromas and bright acidity, typically Kenyan and Ethiopian coffees.

With the split cup 77% of people perceived an increase in coffee acidity and a significant increase in balance.

Tulip

With this cone shaped cup, the liquid enters the mouth in a narrow stream and hits the middle of the tongue. This was said to enhance more earthy aromas and gave the impression that the coffee was very sweet.

The tulip is designed for coffees with lower acidity like typical Bourbons from El Salvador, Brazil or Indian coffees.

For the Tulip cup the majority of people perceived a higher positive aroma across all coffees, and more people than not noted higher acidity, sweetness and body.

Open

The classic ‘U’-design was found to be a forgiving shape when it comes to taste balance, yet it was found that it has the ability to intensify aroma when coffee is smelt

This is a good cup design for coffees that have fruity characters and medium intense acidity, although in the experiment it was the least favourite design with guests preferring the additional sensory experience of the tulip and split cups.

Cup colour

As a secondary experiment, La Cimbali introduced colour into the mix, using red, green and blue lighting. Guests sampled the same coffee blend and again reported marked differences in overall flavour and mouthfeel. When the red light was used, guests noted an increase in acidity and reduction in sweetness. For the green light, there was also a notable increase in acidity and aroma. With the blue light, the data shows a reduction in sweetness.

Ward said in reaction to the results of the experiments: “In summary, I think we can see from this, our own anecdotal evidence that cup design and light/colour has a definite influence on how coffee is perceived. Grasping this and the impact it may have on the coffee being served should therefore be an important consideration for café operators.”

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