Drinking coffee is a multisensory experience. Smell, touch, taste, and sight are all involved, from picking up the bag in the shop to taking the final sip.
Each sense has a significant impact on how we perceive coffee’s flavour. According to recent studies, smell alone is thought to contribute between 75% and 95% of what people describe as “taste”, while the shape of the coffee cup can impact perceptions of sweetness.
As interest in coffee has grown over the years, more and more research on the topic of multisensory flavour perception has emerged. Among the most intriguing is how packaging can be used to influence how consumers experience their coffee. But can factors such as shape and colour really have that much of an effect?
To find out, I spoke with Maísa Mancini Matioli de Sousa, a researcher at The Coffee Sensorium.
What’s The Difference Between Flavour & Taste?
When people talk about coffee, the terms “flavour” and “taste” are often used interchangeably. However, there is a clear distinction between the two, with taste only constituting one part of flavour.
“The word ‘taste’ refers to the five basic tastes perceived in the mouth,” Maísa explains. “Sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami. Flavour, on the other hand, is the multisensory integration of taste (gustation), oral-somatosensation (mouthfeel), and olfaction.
“For olfaction, we have the so-called orthonasal and retronasal systems. Orthonasal is associated with the inhalation of external odours (as when we sniff). Retronasal is related to the detection of the smells and aromas emanating from the food we have in our mouth while we are chewing and swallowing it.”
This explains why cup tasters sample coffees by sucking coffee quickly from a spoon is to spread the liquid across tastebuds inside the mouth. The idea is for it to make contact with as many of these receptors as possible, thus maximising taste perception. (The average person has around 9,000 taste receptor cells in their mouth, including on the tongue, cheeks, and palate.)
How Do Shape & Colour Influence Perceptions Of Flavour?
In 2011, an experiment using popcorn served in different coloured bowls found that when the popcorn was served in a red bowl, perceptions of sweetness were heightened. Compared to white bowls, the popcorn served in red bowls was reported as 3.7% sweeter.
While the reasons for this remain unclear (it’s suggested that because fruit is at its sweetest when it ripens to red it could have led to an unconscious association with the red bowl) the effect of colour on flavour perceptions is evident.
Similarly, research led by Dr Charles Spence from the University of Oxford revealed that when food and drinks were held in packaging of rounder shapes, people perceived them to be sweeter. Angular packaging, on the other hand, increased perceptions of bitterness.
Maísa explains that the same is true of specialty coffee packaging. “Based on our studies of label designs on specialty coffee, we’ve found that a label’s colour and shape can affect expectations of taste attributes, as well as the hedonic judgements (purchasing intentions) of consumers,” she says.
“For example, consumers expected coffee with pink labels to taste sweeter, whereas coffee with green labels was expected to be more acidic. Meanwhile, angular shaped labels increased expectations of acidity when compared to rounder shaped labels.”
Further studies by The Coffee Sensorium explored how congruent labels (i.e. pink/round and green/angular) compared to incongruent labels (i.e. pink/angular and green/round). The results showed that consumers preferred the coffee associated with congruent labels (those geared towards the same taste attributes).
“Our results show that expectations towards sweetness and acidity can affect the extent to which consumers enjoy their coffee and their intentions to buy that coffee,” Maísa says.
This knowledge can be applied by specialty roasters to market the coffee and influence consumer expectations of flavour. University of Oxford researchers suggest that “packaging shape symbolism” is a powerful tool that can be used to enhance sweetness or saltiness when the formation of the product itself has been modified to meet certain standards.
For instance, a specialty roaster could put their cold brew coffee in a red can to enhance perceptions of sweetness without adding any sugar.
“[Despite the results], it’s still too early to conclude that a particular shape for specialty coffee packaging would be better than others,” Maísa says. “There are several factors that should be assessed beforehand, such as cultural influences and where the coffee is being sold.”
Do Packaging Materials Have An Impact On Flavour Perceptions?
Kraft paper, PLA, PE plastic, aluminium foil – there are a wide range of materials used to package coffee. Most specialty roasters are familiar with the pros and cons of each one; however, little is known about how different materials influence flavour perceptions.
Although The Coffee Sensorium has predominantly focused its research on label design, Maísa says the ability of packaging materials to reflect quality could be where its strongest influence lies.
“As we’ve seen across various studies, high-barrier packaging offers greater protection for green and roasted coffee beans,” she says. “But coffee packaging has multiple functions that go beyond protection, serving as the first point of contact for consumers.
“Like label design, coffee packaging should reflect quality and characteristics, working harmoniously with other design elements.”
In other words, if specialty roasters use high-quality packaging, consumers will assume their coffee is high-quality, too. This could be in the form of sturdy, multilayer stand-up pouches made from kraft paper and PLA laminates, or low-density polyethylene (LDPE) flat bottom pouches.
Preferably, the packaging should be multilayered to ensure the coffee inside is protected from exposure to external factors, including light, moisture, heat, and oxygen. Additional components such as degassing valves and resealable zippers can also be fitted to promote a sense of quality and preserve the freshness of the coffee.
To enhance the multisensory experience of buying coffee, some roasters might include a transparent window to their packaging. This allows consumers to view the coffee beans before they purchase them, and provides an idea of specific qualities such as roast profile.
At MTPak Coffee, we offer a selection of fully customisable coffee packaging options for specialty roasters. We use rotogravure and flexographic printing to ensure the highest quality printing in a range of colours, using sustainable water-based inks with low volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
Our stock bags are the perfect option for small to medium sized roasteries looking for low minimum order quantities (MOQs). Available in three options, you can choose from plain (500 units MOQ), plain with single logo (1,000 units MOQ), and fully customised in up to 10 colours (10,000 units MOQ).
For more information on our customisable coffee packaging, contact our team here.
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