The Sensory Story Of Color In Coffee

Deployed strategically, color offers the ability to influence the way we experience the world in all its sensory parts.

Think back to how you chose your most recent bag of coffee. Was it because of a minimalist design or a brightly colored pattern? What about the latest cafe you visited: did you get drawn in by its natural materials or an overall color scheme? You may be unable to articulate your reasons because these choices are often subconscious. There are many ways to experience a coffee, and setting the scene with color is just one way to manipulate it.

Color impacts the coffee journey starting from the very beginning. Before coffee reaches your favorite roasters, it first passes through Q graders, who use all their available senses to evaluate coffee. To obtain certification, they must first pass a series of sensory evaluations. But, in tests like Matching Pairs, Triangulations, and Roast ID, where other senses are being tested, a red light is used to remove visual cues. “These exams confirm the cuppers’ ability to use their sense of taste and smell to identify differences in coffee; we want to ensure that cuppers are not using other clues—like visual differences—to discern the difference between two cups,” explains Sandra Elisa Loofbourow, owner of Loupe Coffee Consulting and a CQI instructor, via email.

Next, we have packaging. We’ve seen a wide range of design choices in coffee: from brown kraft paper to a simple label on a white bag to maximalist in color and shapes. Just a glimpse through this year’s Coffee Design Awards entries in packaging shows how diverse one year’s designs can be.

The psychological part of color theory tells us what feelings we associate with certain colors. If you organize your phone apps by color or category, you’re probably already familiar with this. Blue builds trust, which is why so many bank logos have blue in them (however, remember that color doesn’t solve everything; it can only help build so much trust). Red warns us of danger or to stop before we go. Green is all about growth and nature.

While there are many studies published about the various influences that color and package design have on consumers, one study looked more closely at package colors that deviate from a category norm. Researchers showed consumers two different products in typical and atypical category colors: orange juice was placed in both an orange box (typical) and a blue box (atypical), and sparkling wine in a gold-wrapped bottle (typical) and purple bottle (atypical). “The results show that an increase in package color typicality decreases consumer skepticism and enhances interest, leading to more positive attitudinal and behavioral reactions,” the study concluded. “In contrast, package color atypicality was found to negatively influence consumer preferences.” Basically, it’s nice to stand out on the shelf but don’t go too far out of the category norm.

Dr. Fabiana Carvalho
Dr. Fabiana Carvalho.

Dr. Fabiana Carvalho is a neuroscientist, a researcher at the University of Campinas, Brazil, and the founder of The Coffee Sensorium Project. In her upcoming talk at Re:co Portland, Carvalho will be sharing detailed results from a research project on how the colors of the cups and coffee bags impact consumer expectations and perceptions of the coffee. She confirms via email, “We have found that colors hugely impact both sensory and hedonic (i.e., related to pleasantness of consumption) judgments of the coffee.”

“Colors can be used to communicate the main flavor notes of a coffee. It’s important to choose the right color palette  based on the overall sensory profile of a coffee,” says Carvalho. “By doing so, the bag design itself can already indicate the sensory characteristics of a coffee, such as the roast level, and the main aroma/flavor notes.” If you don’t differentiate with colors, you risk making a mistake as I did, which was to buy a very dark-roasted coffee when I thought I was buying a light-roasted one (the only indicator on the roast level were tiny words in the corner of the label—entirely my fault for not looking more closely).

In these Instagram days, we make assumptions and judgments about a cafe before even stepping inside. Everything from bags to wall colors to equipment create indicators of what your experience will be like.

The colorful scene inside Matryoshka Coffee in Nashville.

In Japan, researchers examined color interiors of cafes, how people felt upon entering, and their expectations of the coffee’s taste. Kosuke Motoki is an assistant professor at the University of Tokyo and one of the researchers on the study. About their findings, he says, “The greenish, darker-colored interiors create feelings of calmness, which increased the expected tastiness of the coffee and then increased their likelihood of visiting.” Reddish and lighter-colored interiors gave people the expectation that the coffee was sweeter, while the greenish, darker ones were associated with sour/bitter/tastier coffee.

In the end, color tells us a lot—but not everything—about the coffees we love to drink.

Jenn Chen (@thejennchen) is an Editor At Large at Sprudge Media Network. Read more Jenn Chen on Sprudge.


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