Does the colour of the mug influence the taste of the coffee?
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
Meanwhile, Guéguen and Jacob had 120 people drink coffee from four different coloured cups (blue, green, yellow and
red). The participants had to indicate which coffee was the warmest (in terms of its temperature). Thirty-eight percent of
the participants reported that the coffee served from the red cup was the warmest, followed by yellow (28.3%), green (20.0%)
and, finally, blue (13.3%). Note that these differences were statistically significant. In summary, the colour of the cup can
be added to the list of factors that have now been demonstrated to influence various aspects of the coffee drinking
experience. This list also includes whether or not the coffee had an eco-friendly origin and any branding cues.
Based on previous work and anecdotal evidence, we explored the impact of the colour of a receptacle on people’s coffee
drinking experience. If extrinsic cues influence a consumer’s experience of coffee, and if taste is affected by contrast
effects, coffee tasted/drunk from a white mini mug
should be rated as more
bitter than from a clear mug instead. Given Piqueras-Fiszman et al.’s and Stewart and Goss’work with strawberry
mousse and cheesecake, respectively, we thought that it is possible that the brown-bitter association might be enhanced by
colour contrast. However, and with regard to the colour of coffee and the colour of the immediate surroundings against which
it is presented, simultaneous contrast might be at work. Specifically, the brown of the coffee may be intensified if the
coffee is served from a light blue mug. It should be noted that factors other than contrast effects can influence perception.
For example, the cup in which the coffee is served may affect us as a function of our perception of the general properties of
the cup (i.e., cheap vs. expensive , flimsy vs. strong). We have attempted to control these potentially confounding variables
in the present study. That said, and to borrow from Piqueras-Fiszman et al., if the colour of the mug affects the way in
which people perceive the colour of the coffee, and the colour of the coffee affects the perception of flavour, then the
colour of the mug (and any contrast effect that it elicits) would be expected to influence the perceived properties of the
coffee (e.g., bitterness).
The travel mug
type exerted a significant influence on participants’
ratings of the perceived intensity of the café latté, F(2,15) = 4.78, p?=?.025 (see Figure Bonferroni-
corrected post hoc tests revealed that the café latté was rated as significantly more intense (p?=?.026) when
served from the white, ceramic mug than when served from the clear, glass mug. None of the other comparisons reached
statistical significance. The mug type failed to exert any influence on participants’ ratings of the other attributes of the
café latté (see Table .
The white mug enhanced the perceived “intensity” of the coffee flavour relative to the transparent mug. Our hypothesis
was that a crossmodal association between brown and bitter exists and that bitterness, and possibly other attributes, would
be enhanced by the colour contrast. Although there was no simultaneous contrast effect (i.e., coffee surrounded by its
complementary colour was not rated as any more bitter than the coffee presented in either the clear or white mug), it is
possible that colour contrast influenced the intensity of the coffee flavour in experiment 1.
The mug type exerted a significant influence on participants’ ratings of the perceived sweetness of the café
latté, F(2,33) = 3.57, p?=?.040 (see Figure. Bonferroni-corrected post hoc tests established that the
drink was rated as significantly less sweet (p?=?.041) when served from the white mug relative to the see-through, glass mug
or the blue mug. None of the other comparisons reached statistical significance. The mug type failed to exert any influence
on participants’ ratings of the other attributes of the café latté (see Table.
Crossmodal influences refer to the effects that information from one sensory modality can have on the perception of
information from another. The main issue explored in this study was whether consumers’ perception of a warm café latté would
be influenced by the colour (transparent, white or blue) of the mug from which it was served and consumed. Our results
clearly demonstrate that the colour of the mug does influence the perceived taste/flavour of coffee.
In the two experiments presented here, it was hypothesised that a crossmodal association between brown and bitter exists
and that bitterness, and possibly other attributes, would be enhanced by the colour contrast. In experiment 1, the white mug
was found to enhance the perceived “intensity” of the coffee’s flavour relative to the transparent mug. However, given
slight differences in the mugs used in experiment 1, we decided to conduct a follow-up study with identical mugs. Experiment
2 revealed that the white mug diminished the “sweetness” of the coffee flavour relative to the transparent and blue mugs.
Given that ratings associated with the transparent glass mug were not significantly different from those associated with
the light blue mug in either experiment, it seems as though simultaneous contrast cannot be used to explain the observed
results. However, it is possible that colour contrast influenced the intensity/sweetness of the coffee’s flavour. That said,
an alternative mechanism (i.e., sensation transference) might also be at play in experiment 1 In short, implicit
judgments regarding the intensity of the white mug may be transferred to the coffee causing it to be perceived as more
intense than the coffee served in the other mugs. Given Favre and November’s finding that people report coffee served
from a brown container to be too strong (i.e., too intense) and our results from experiment 2, it seems unlikely that (1)
people would hold an implicit “intensity” judgement for both white and brown colours and (2) ‘sensation transference’ is
the mechanism at work here. Similar to an argument made by Piqueras-Fiszman et al., it seems more plausible to suggest that
the white background of the coffee mug
may have influenced the perceived
brownness of the coffee and that this, in turn, was what influenced the perceived intensity (and sweetness) of the coffee. As
we replicate the basic finding that the colour of the mug makes a difference, the correspondence between the visual
appearance of the mug and aspects of the flavour suggests that colour contrast mechanisms may be at work here.
Two findings are worth highlighting here: (1) that there is a general trend in experiment 2 towards an increased
“intensity” rating (i.e., ratings of intensity were greater for coffee served in the white mug), but this effect failed to
reach significance, and (2) the significant intensity and sweetness results of experiments 1 and 2, respectively, might be
connected. Note that consumers, as compared to baristas, appear to blur the distinction between ‘intensity’ and
‘bitterness’. Dijksterhuis has suggested that because of the use of the word ‘strong’ in advertising, consumers
often confuse a coffee’s strength or intensity with its ‘bitterness’—in fact, visual inspection of Tables
reveals that there is a trend
in bitterness ratings that mirrors intensity ratings that would support such a view. Furthermore, any reduction in the
“sweetness” of the coffee when presented from a white mug might also be expected to signify an increase in perceived
bitterness (or strength). As mentioned above, Koch and Koch also found that brown, amongst other colours, was
negatively associated with sweetness.
Marketers such as Favre and November have reported an effect of jar colour on perceived coffee aroma. Coffee served
in a blue jar was more often judged as having a milder aroma than the same coffee when presented in jars of other colours. By
contrast, we observed no effect of blue on aroma or any of the other attributes. Favre and November seem to have
documented a simultaneous contrast effect for “mildness” which might be considered to lie at the opposite end of an
“intensity” rating scale. Elsewhere, researchers have demonstrated that the colour of plastic vending cups influences
people’s perception of hot chocolate, such that orange (with a white interior) enhanced the chocolate flavour, as did dark-
cream coloured cups which also enhanced sweetness and aroma . Although our findings differ in their details from those of
Piqueras-Fiszman and Spence , they nevertheless concur at a more general level in demonstrating the importance of the colour
of the container/plateware on the consumer’s experience of a variety of food and drink products, see also. Our results also
help to address the relative paucity of literature on the influence of drinking receptacles as recently highlighted by Spence
and Wan .