The Institute for Scientific Information on Coffee (ISIC) has explored the sensory experience of coffee and its impact on the brain. Drinking coffee provides a multisensory experience influenced not only by the type of coffee and preparation method, but by the environment in which it is consumed – even the colour of the mug. Some scientists believe the coffee experience might even start upon hearing the sound of a coffee machine.
The sensory profile of a cup of coffee varies according to the type and blend of coffee beans used, their geographical source, roasting method and preparation – all of which impact experience. For example, the level of roasting impacts aroma profiles and experts are able to differentiate between lighter roasts which can preserve herb and fruit notes, while darker roasts increase smoke and burnt aromas.
Aroma is initially sensed in the nose when we sniff (orthonasally), but also retronasally at the back of our mouth when we swallow. Approximately 850 volatile compounds have been identified that are associated with flavour in coffee. It is believed that about 40 of these volatile compounds contribute to aroma.
Adding milk or sugar to coffee will alter the flavour profile. If adding milk to coffee, low-fat milk with smaller globules will better preserve a more intense coffee flavour than whole milk.
The colour of the cup can impact the perception of taste. For example, one study suggests the use of a white mug enhances the rating of intensity of a cup of coffee, and it was described as less sweet compared to coffee served in a transparent or blue mug. Another study on latte art revealed that an angular shape, relative to a more rounded shape, influenced people’s expectations concerning the likability, bitterness and quality of the drink.
Aroma is often associated with emotions or memories – therefore the smell of coffee may remind you of feelings from other coffee moments such as relaxation or alertness. Further research is needed to determine whether the aroma of coffee alone is enough to enhance alertness in the morning or if this effect results from connections between sensorial experience and emotional memories.
Researchers suggest that drinking a cup of coffee without one of the sensorial cues, for example without being able to smell the coffee aroma, will reduce the effect on the other senses and impact our experience and pleasure derived from drinking a cup of coffee. The experience is about much more than the smell or the taste of the coffee in that moment as research suggests that aroma can trigger emotions and evoke memories.