27 Mar 2014

Does the Cup Influence the Taste of the Coffee?

a collection of cups
For those competing in the national or international Barista Championships, this will (hopefully) be common knowledge. The rules concerning which cups to use during the competition have changed. The Barista Championships, for those who do not know, all surround the question of whom in the world is the best Barista. To judge this, Baristas have 15 minutes to create 4 consistent espressos, cappuccinos and signature drinks, choosing their own beans, roast, extractions, milk and basically everything else.

Although everything but the espresso machine has to be brought in by the Barista, there are strict rules on what can and cannot be used. And as I said, the rules on what cups to use have changed. As of 2014 the espresso and cappuccino cup are not required to have an ear. What is used to contain the beverage does not even need to be a cup, as the rules and regulations only talk about 'vessels'.

In my book this is a good thing. Now, the ear of the cup really does not influence the flavour of the coffee, however the rest of the cup (or container, or vessel) does. Does is have a flat or a reverse domed bottom? Does it have a thin and sharp rim, or a thick and smooth one? Does the material of the cup retain heat, release or hold the aroma, does it absorb any fluids, or perhaps worse, release them? Even, what colour does it have?

Yesterday, rummaging through a thrift store,
I ran across some beautiful cups. One that would be great for a double macchiato and one that would serve a perfect double shot cappuccino-flat white type of drink. The macchiato cup; a more classic porcelain, white with fade out grey on the edge, with a golden rim. Slightly tulip shaped. Gorgeous. Classic. Luxurious. The quirky bold and blue cappuccino-flat white cups had the right size for me and just made me happy looking at them, as they vibed off a warm spring day feeling. I could just see myself in my garden enjoying sipping from that cup in the sun, smelling flowers, looking at birds and butterflies.

How something looks and feels is essential to flavour. This has been researched and proved many, many times over. We don't like eating green tomatoes. We love drinking hot chocolate from orange cups. And potato crisps taste better with a crunch. As Aradhna Krishna puts it in her book 'Customer Sense', we use all our senses when tasting, and all those sensory inputs come together in the part of our brain called the orbitofrontal cortex, which influences how our brain interprets flavour.
Consuming hot drinks in white cups gives the idea of a sweeter and creamier drink, making them perfect for milky coffees. Also, the firmer the cup, the better the perceived taste.

Now although perceived taste is important, actual taste is essential. Although a certain 'vessel' cannot make a bad coffee good, it can make a good coffee better. Most coffee professionals know about the whole serving coffee in wine glasses hype, and the discussion, waves of critique and also hallelujahs this hype has brought. No matter what your stance is on the whole serving coffee in wine glasses debacle, all baristas can learn from the wine industry. Research in use of decantation, of certain glasses and how to increase aroma and flavour is much more developed and much richer in volume and quality in the wine industry than it is in the coffee industry.

So what are the things you can look for in choosing a coffee cup? Now, a little disclaimer; the following is not based on research, but on my personal observations.

Lets start with material. Cups can be made of porcelain, glass, paper or plastic and many other things or things in between. The problem with paper or plastic is that often it does add flavour to the coffee. This also depends on quality of the paper or the plastic of course. Often paper cups are coated to prevent the horrible cardboard flavour from seeping into your beverage. Special plastics are made to create a flavourless vessel. However very often, especially with paper cups, you do get an off flavour. This cardboardy paper taste is just awful, and can also be tasted when drinking cold water. It is not so much the flavour being introduced into the beverage, but your tongue connecting with the cup when taking a sip. And its horrible.

I also do not like glass for my espresso based coffees. I think this is mainly due to the temperature difference. Often glass cups are not pre heated or are too hot, and also they do not distribute the heat of the coffee as evenly as porcelain. Other than that, again the actual tasting of the glass when drinking does not appeal to me. I do not mind a glass vessel as much when drinking a more acidic and sweet filter coffee though.
For me porcelain remains the best material, especially for espresso based drinks.

Bonanza Coffee Roasters, Berlin Germany
An other thing to look at is the rim. Is it thin or broad? Is it smooth or sharp? Mostly a thick rim disrupts the flow a bit. In my experience a thicker rim gives a thicker body as well. This is why for espressos I do often prefer a thicker rim as I like a full bodied espresso. When milk is added this becomes less important to me.

The first time I started thinking about the thickness of the cup was in Berlin, at Bonanza Coffee Roasters in 2012. It was here that I was first served a filter coffee in a thin porcelain tea like cup. And the delicate flavours were brought to the foreground so perfectly, it blew my mind. Ever since I have been drinking the more delicate and acidic coffees in thinner rimmed porcelain cups, which I hunt for at previously mentioned thrift stores or secondhand markets.

And last, but not least, the overall shape. A tulip shaped cup concentrates the aromas. When the rim covers the nose as you sip, the aromas hit you much harder. Also it adds clarity and its a little easier to discern different flavours. This is why some Baristas prefer wine glasses.
A bigger surfaced cup, will result in a loss of viscosity and temperature, which can both be a good or a bad thing depending on your type of coffee and personal preference.
For espresso the bottom of the cup is essential. Is it flat? Or does it have a reversed dome-like shape? A more rounded bottom surface will give a stronger and thicker crema. This due to the fact that the espresso rolls over itself in a wave like fashion as it falls into the cup, resulting in a better built crema. If the bottom is just flat, the espresso hits the bottom and 'breaks', giving it a weaker crema. For the same reason a lot of Baristas place the cup in such a way that the espresso shot hits the side and not the bottom while extracting.

the new macchiato luxury cup

To sum up what you should look into when choosing a cup (that I know of, there is probably much, much more to consider);
  • What is the material of the cup? How does this distribute temperature? Does is absorb or give off any fluids or flavour?
  • What kind of rim does it have?
  • What shape does the cup have? Tulip, narrow, broad, V-shaped? How does this influence temperature, body or aromas?
  • An other thing to wonder about is the shape of the rim, is it more rounded or more flat, is it narrow or broad? Basically, how does your lip rest on the rim? 
As I said, these are my experiences. I would love to know yours. In the mean time I will keep my collection of different cups growing healthily, experimenting my way through until I find the research article I have been looking for.


  1. I think it can affect the taste of the coffee, but only to a certain degree.

  2. Of course changing the experience of taste is always only to a certain degree. However we often do forget to take cup shape, material and even colour into consideration. More and more research is popping up on how things beyond our taste buds can change what we taste. Even our surroundings have an influence. Check out these studies on the colour of the cup and music. http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/wordofmouth/2014/mar/11/sound-affects-taste-food-sweet-bitter and http://www.flavourjournal.com/content/3/1/10

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