How does the texture of takeaway cups influence perceptions of coffee?

Karmen Yoong
March 25, 2022
takeaway coffee cup texture

Takeaway service brings several benefits to a coffee shop business. It allows them to serve a wider range of customers, improve revenue and accessibility, and cater to the on-the-go lifestyle of modern consumers.

Given its crucial nature in the post-Covid-19 world, it’s never been more important to pay attention to the details of your takeaway service. One aspect of this that is both ergonomically and aesthetically important is the humble takeaway cup.

Often, the function of takeaway cups extends beyond holding and transporting coffee. From the way it looks to the way it feels in hand, they play a massive role in the overall coffee consumption experience.

Some believe that the design of takeaway cups can even affect flavour perception. To learn more about this phenomenon, I spoke with Verônica Belchior, a sensory scientist and researcher at the Coffee Sensorium.

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What are the different types and textures of takeaway cups?

Many takeaway cup options are available on the market today. From low cost styrofoam (polystyrene) and plastic cups, to more eco-friendly options like kraft paper cups, each has distinct physical properties that offer unique coffee drinking experiences. 

For years, styrofoam and plastic cups have dominated the takeaway scene. They’re lightweight, durable, cheap, and smooth to the touch. Unfortunately, they’re terrible for the environment.

Styrofoam takes ergonomics to the next level. It’s effective at retaining heat and doesn’t become too warm when filled with hot beverages. However, the material can leak toxic elements when exposed to heat.

Rising environmental concerns around plastic materials have prompted single-use plastic bans around the world, leading to a gradual phasing out of styrofoam and plastic disposables altogether.

Verônica agrees, saying that she despises the idea of plastic cups.

“Personally for me, to have coffee in a plastic cup is completely uncomfortable because the idea of plastic going into the beverage and drinking plastic is horrible,” she explains. “From an environmental point of view, paper cups are better because they are biodegradable.”

As such, many roasters and cafes have turned their attention towards plant-based alternatives such as kraft paper. Manufactured from wood pulp, kraft paper is 100% natural, and it’s also biodegradable and compostable under the right conditions.

With its light brown tones and textured surface, kraft paper is also appreciated for its natural appearance. These cups are typically lined with polylactic acid (PLA), making them sturdy, leak-free, and ensuring no papery flavours are imparted to the coffee.

Although paper cups can become difficult to carry when filled with hot beverages, double-wall features and cup sleeves are available to improve comfort, increase firmness, and reduce heat loss.

takeaway coffee cups

How does texture affect perceptions of a coffee’s characteristics?

Beyond the intrinsic qualities of coffee itself, a growing body of research suggests that external cues, including physical properties of a drinking vessel, play a role in flavour perception.

A study conducted by neuroscientist Fabiana Carvalho found that cup texture has affected both expert (Q graders) and amateur consumers in their judgement of coffee attributes.

In particular, Q graders perceived higher levels of acidity in coffee when consumed from a rough cup, while coffee in a smooth cup was described as sweeter by the general consumer. Also, both groups judged coffee in a rough cup as having a drier aftertaste.

Verônica and Fabiana are the leading researchers behind Coffee Sensorium, an education project that investigates coffee chemistry and the multisensory experience of specialty coffee consumption.

“Texture has a stronger influence on mouthfeel and body perception, as well as how clean and smooth the coffee will be in our mouth,” says Verônica. “When the external texture of the cup is rough, the mouthfeel of coffee tends to be harsh, with increased bitterness and astringency perception. Coffee also appears to be less clean.”

Somehow, the brain is making predictions of the quality of beverage based on tactile sensation.

Agnieszka Rojewska, the 2018 World Barista Champion, included haptic elements in her competition routine to put an interpretation of this theory into practice. She used a multi-textured cloth and weighted wooden ball to provide sensory cues to the mouthfeel and body of her coffee.

Other than texture, the firmness of a cup was also found to influence taste perception. One study concluded that the perceived quality of water is rated more favourably when served in a firm cup compared to a flimsy vessel.

In a separate exploratory study, correlation between metallic finishing on cups and sensory judgement was discovered, suggesting that a glossy or shiny texture may also have an impact on flavour experiences.

recyclable coffee cup

What should roasters/coffee shops consider when choosing materials?

When selecting takeaway cups, roasters and café owners have to consider the drinking experience they want to provide to consumers. This is particularly important because different coffees have different traits and qualities.

The design of takeaway cups should be optimised to complement the flavour characteristics that a particular establishment favours. This is similar to the fine wine industry, where grape varietal-specific wine glasses have been developed to offer heightened sensory experiences.

For example, roasters could opt to use cups made of smooth materials when looking to accentuate the natural sweetness of coffee.

Verônica explains that it’s also essential to take into account the cross-modal interaction between different variables that affect flavour perception, including texture, colour, and shape, among others.

“[The effect of] colour is stronger than texture,” she says. “If the cup is red and rough, your perception of sweetness tends to be higher, and perception of bitterness or harshness will be less.”

However, while the influence of material on sensory experience requires careful thought, it is paramount not to lose sight of the bigger picture.

“Of course the materials will impact flavour perception, but it is more important nowadays to think about how the environment is affected by these materials,” she suggests. “We have to consider the whole material chain, including the source of the material and whether the material is recyclable or biodegradable.”

With more than 380 million tons of plastic waste produced every year, and less than 9% of it getting recycled, plastic pollution poses serious threats to the environment, wildlife, and human life.

“Every single year, we are crossing the limit of the planet, so sustainability has to be at the very top of our minds,” concludes Veronica. “We can design beautiful takeaway cups, but if they are not sustainable, we miss the point.”

At MTPak Coffee, we offer sustainable coffee cups for specialty coffee roasters, but there’s no need to compromise when it comes to design. Our takeaway cups are 100% compostable and printed using low-VOC, water-based inks.

At the end of the day, we aim to allow roasters to design the best sensory experience with minimal environmental impact.

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