How can the shape of a takeaway coffee cup influence flavour perceptions?

Kahwei Yoong
December 22, 2021
takeaway coffee cup shape

A coffee’s flavour is determined by a vast number of influences, from growing conditions and processing methods to grind sizes and brewing techniques.

Yet a significant influence that is often overlooked is the shape of the cup itself.

Whether top-heavy, thick rimmed, tall, or short, a cup’s shape can have a considerable bearing on flavour perceptions, with the potential to alter sweetness, acidity, and even specific notes.

This is also true of takeaway cups, which have, owing to Covid-19, become an increasingly important item for roasters and cafés, allowing them to continue serving coffee throughout lockdowns.

So what’s the best shape for specialty coffee? And do different drinks need different shapes?

To find out more, I spoke with sensory scientist and MTPak Coffee ambassador, Verônica Belchior.

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How is flavour perceived?

Although the terms, “flavour” and “taste” are often used interchangeably, there are a number of distinctions between the two.

Taste refers to the senses in relation to our tongue and taste buds; whereas flavour is a complex mix of senses, which include taste.

Our perception of flavour is dependent on the way in which our brain synthesises a range of external stimuli into an overall experience. This includes vision (sight), olfactory (aroma), gustatory (taste), auditory (sound), and tactile (touch).

The interaction and integration of various external cues creates what’s known as a “multisensory flavour perception”. We also produce cognitive expectations and predictions based on appearances, or how food and drink is presented, which impacts the final flavour experience.

“Put simply, the whole environment has an implication on how we perceive things,” says Verônica, who works as a researcher for the Coffee Sensorium, a project focused on studying the sensory experience of specialty coffee consumption.

“It’s not only our physiological condition or the chemical molecules in coffee, but also the external stimuli that will influence how we perceive coffee.”

An image of a customised takeaway coffee cup, custom-printed takeaway coffee cup, in an article on how the shape of a takeaway coffee cup influences flavour perceptions

The impact of a cup’s shape on flavour experience

Over the years, numerous studies have shown a correlation between shapes and flavour perceptions.

For example, a study on packaging design found that rounded shapes were associated with sweetness, while angular shapes were linked to sourness.

Similarly, research into various food shapes concluded that rounder chocolates were expected to be sweeter, creamier, and less bitter compared to angular-shaped chocolates.

Such results were consistent with the findings of the researchers at the Coffee Sensorium, whereby coffee was rated to be sweeter when participants were served with a rounder cup.

“If you put some curves in a takeaway cup,” Verônica says, “it can remind consumers of sweetness. Whereas if you add some angles and squares, or angular-shaped designs, our brain is prompted to perceive coffee as more acidic.”

The wine industry places great emphasis on shapes and sizes of wine glasses in delivering the best flavour experience.

For example, companies such as Riedel have specifically designed glasses that complement wine region and grape varietal to enhance the sensory experience.

While it may seem only a small aspect, studies suggest that the difference in sensory performance is related to the volatilisation of aroma compounds and chemical composition in the headspace due to the shape of the vessel.

The same is true of takeaway coffee cups. Verônica tells me that since aromatic compounds present in the headspace stimulate the olfactory senses, takeaway cups with more headspace can increase the perceived intensity of coffee aroma.

The rim of the cup is another important aspect to consider. Rim thickness and shape can affect the tactile sensation produced when the lips are in direct contact with the cup, influencing the overall drinking experience.

This is exemplified by Chinese tea served in teacups with open-mouth rim designs, which were rated most favourably by participants in a teacup design research.

An image of customised takeaway coffee cups made from sustainable materials, sustainable coffee cups, takeaway cups, in an article on how the shape of a takeaway coffee cup influences flavour perceptions

Other factors that affect flavour perception: Colour, texture and weight

Colour plays a significant role in setting consumers’ expectations of the taste and flavour of food and drinks.

One study found that latte served in a white mug was rated to be more intense than the same coffee in a transparent mug.

This result is proposed to be related to the priming and colour contrast mechanism. In particular, brown is believed to be associated with bitterness and when a white mug is used, it amplifies the “brownness” of coffee, which increases its perceived intensity.

Further research by the Coffee Sensorium also supports the priming mechanism where pink cups were found to induce notions of sweetness, and yellow or green cups prompted expectations of acidity.

“In our life, we are exposed to green or yellow fruits (e.g. lemon) tasting acidic and red fruits (e.g. strawberry) tasting sweet,” Verônica explains. “Because of this, our brain learns to associate colours with tastes.”

Coffee roasters and café owners can apply this knowledge to influence consumers’ flavour experience.

For example, using a red disposable coffee cup helps enhance the perceived sweetness of coffee while a white cup can create contrast with black coffee to signal strength and intensity.

“Texture is also something that will impact flavour perception, with relation to mouthfeel,” Verônica adds.

She says that coffee consumed from a smooth cup can produce a smooth mouthfeel, while a rough cup prompts perception of harshness and astringency.

Interestingly, the weight of cups was also found to influence our experience with coffee. Specifically, coffee served in a heavier cup was perceived as having a longer aftertaste compared to coffee in a lighter cup.

Despite the results, Verônica raises a point about the universality of the findings since culture and past experience will also dictate how consumers process sensory cues.

Therefore, cultural background and demographics of customers should be considered when designing takeaway coffee cups.

Choosing the right takeaway cup is important to ensure that it complements the characteristics of coffee and does not distort the qualities of coffee.

At MTPak Coffee, our recyclable takeaway coffee cup options can be fully customised to reflect your branding and provide the best sensory experience for consumers.

We also developed SensoryLid which allows consumers to appreciate the full aroma of their takeaway coffee without any spillages, further enhancing the flavour experience.

For information on our takeaway coffee cups, contact our team.

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