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Does the colour of the mug influence the taste of the coffee?

In experiment 1, the white travel mug enhanced the rated “intensity” of the coffee flavour relative to the transparent mug. However, given slight physical differences in the mugs used, a second experiment was conducted using identical glass mugs with coloured sleeves. Once again, the colour 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.

Both experiments demonstrate that the colour of the mug affects people’s ratings of a hot beverage. Given that ratings associated with the transparent glass mug were not significantly different from those associated with the blue mug in either experiment, an explanation in terms of simultaneous contrast can be ruled out. However, it is possible that colour contrast between the mug and the coffee may have affected the perceived intensity/sweetness of the coffee. That is, the white mug may have influenced the perceived brownness of the coffee and this, in turn, may have influenced the perceived intensity (and sweetness) of the coffee. These results support the view that the colour of the mug should be considered by those serving coffee as it can influence the consumer’s multisensory coffee drinking experience. These results add to a large and growing body of research highlighting the influence of product-extrinsic colour on the multisensory perception of food and drink.

In Australia alone, around a billion cups of coffee are consumed in cafés, restaurants and other outlets each and every year. 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 ought, presumably, to be interested in anything that can help to enhance the multisensory coffee drinking experience for their clientele cf.

The idea behind experiment 1 came about serendipitously. During a conversation between the first author (GV) and a barista, the latter reported that when coffee is consumed from a white, ceramic mug, it tastes more bitter than when drunk from a clear, glass mug instead; note that these two mug types are amongst the most commonly used vessels to serve coffee in Australian cafés and restaurants. In the present study, we therefore sought to establish the validity of this claim which, to our knowledge, has not been described previously. Indeed, as recently highlighted by Spence and Wan, there is a paucity of research on the psychological impact of the receptacles that we use to drink from.

The notion that the colour of the receptacle/plateware can impact taste/flavour perception might relate to Piqueras-Fiszman et al.’s research putatively showing that colour contrast resulted in a red, strawberry-flavoured mousse presented on a white plate being rated as 10% sweeter and 15% more flavourful than when exactly the same food was presented on a black plate, see for an extension of this work; see for an explicit attempt to evaluate the colour contrast account. While contrast represents one plausible explanation for such results, it is important to note that there are also several other possible mechanisms (e.g., priming) that may explain the influence of product-extrinsic colour on taste/flavour ratings. Taking the principal of colour contrast one stage further, and given the conversation with the barista, it was proposed that brown may be associated with bitterness (or, perhaps, is negatively associated with sweetness). If taste were to be affected crossmodally by colour contrast, then coffee that is tasted from a white coffee mug should be rated as somewhat more bitter than exactly the same coffee when consumed from a transparent mug instead.

It is possible that another contrast mechanism (i.e., simultaneous contrast) might affect the perception of taste . Here, if light, opaque, milky brown coffee were to be associated with bitterness, then a light blue mug/surrounding should intensify the brown of the coffee because blue is brown’s complementary colour . 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 simultaneous contrast are Heinz’s™ use of a greenish-blue can to set off the red-orange colour of their beans and sauce and Cadbury’s™ use of purple packaging to enhance the colour of their chocolate.

Although many studies have been published on colour-flavour interactions over the years, see  for a review, very little has been published to date specifically looking at crossmodal influences on the perception of coffee. This absence is surprising given, as we saw above, how many cups of coffee are drunk every day. In terms of the limited research that has been conducted specifically in this area, Favre and November offered 200 people coffee from four different jars, i.e., brown, red, blue and yellow. Seventy-three percent of the participants reported that the coffee served from the brown container was too strong, whereas 80% of women felt that the coffee served from the red receptacle had a richer, fuller aroma. The blue jar suggested a milder aroma to most and the coffee in the yellow container was rated as coming from a weaker blend.

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