In coffee retailing, it's important to remember that we eat and drink first with our eyes. Imagine a beautifully poured cappuccino featuring a glossy sheen, tight microfoam, and high color contrast between the espresso and milk. Now match that against a bubbly, whited out, haphazardly poured cappuccino. It's clear which beverage wins in terms of visual appeal. Of course, this doesn't necessarily match up with the best taste, but you have to lead a horse to water to even get it to start thinking about taking a drink!
There are many sensory indicators that alert us to our potential enjoyment or dismay with a food or drink. From the size, shape, and texture to the smells, tastes, and even the sound of the chew, our brains are constantly interpreting myriad stimuli. One of the leading attributes in flavor perception is color. How do we know which colors are appetizing? It largely depends on the context. We might expect a bright red tomato to taste delicious either because we understand fruit maturation or we've learned an association from a past experience. One might also argue that a bright red tomato intuitively looks tasty and inviting. In the case of coffee, we mostly expect our beverages to look brown or brown and white. Despite the apparent simplicity of color palette, there are gradations of red, brown, and black in brews, while the skillful mix of brown and white in a milk drink undoubtedly has the potential to enhance our experience.
Additionally, the color of the vessel seems to alter flavor perception. Attributable to the link below, brown cups are purported to heighten the perception of strength and aroma in coffee, while red cups reduce its perceived strength. Yellow or blue cups are observed to raise the perception of a smoother taste. It's not a stretch to imagine that these color perception-altering sensory inputs also extend to brand identity, labeling, and shop color motifs. If this is true, it is wise to consider the color palette your cafe is utilizing. Read more here: http://www.atyourpalate.com/blog/2013/01/eating-with-your-eyes-changes-w...
So there's how colors affect our flavor perception, but what about identifying flavors as colors? I used to love red Kool-Aid, blue Icy Pops, and orange M&Ms. I was so fascinated with color-flavors that I entered the 8th grade Science Fair with an experiment on M&M color favoritism and subliminal messaging. Being that the test subjects were my 8th grade peers, they all tried to guess what I was doing and purposely attempted to throw off my results. Adolescent behavior aside, I do seem to remember the brighter colors being more popular. These days, I still think about colored flavors, especially during contextual tastings like cuppings. This association behavior creates an echo when I find myself detailing a coffee to a customer in terms of its color(s). This habit could also be attributed to spending a good deal of time staring at the SCAA's Coffee Taster's Flavor Wheel. Take a look and you'll quickly notice a pattern between the colors and aromas/tastes.
To note, making associations is not quite the same as the neurological phenomenon known as synesthesia. If you involuntarily experience a crossing of sensory information, you might be a synesthete. This condition is not considered to be harmful and may actually help affected folks memorize information (or they may simply get a kick out of it). For example, Synesthetes might perceive specific letters as specific colors or certain smells might bring on certain emotional states. We all experience a hint of synesthesia from time-to-time! It might even be possible to learn a specific synesthesia through repeated associative conditioning.
For us, talking about coffees as colors is simply an evocative way to associate with what you might experience. At our last public cupping, we wanted to find out what colors our customers associated with or even tasted in our coffees, so we put them to a test. We lined up 16 different coffees - 13 peak/filter roasts and 3 espresso roasts. Our friends smelled the dry ground fragrance, the wet aroma at various points, and proceeded to sip and slurp. While they were smelling and tasting, we provided 8 different colors (via paint chips) to vote with (red, pink, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet, and brown). We noted that you could vote with one or many colors for a given coffee, then we watched. At the end, we tallied up the votes and announced our results, which you may find below!
As you see, about half of our offerings are super vibrant! These coffees are mostly red, orange, yellow, and even green, displaying fruit, floral, and herbaceous aromas and flavors. The textures here feel quite electric, exciting, and so alive! As we move down the chart, we notice more and more brown. In juxtaposition to the brighter, livelier coffees, these browner brews showed more heat-applied/cooked flavors like toasted almonds, toffee, and baked granola. Though these browner coffees mostly are what they are, you'll note that there are splashes of brighter colors with each of them. Even Mass Appeal, which is designed to be as brown as they come, has a hint.
After seeing this, we'd be hard-pressed to label a coffee as one color. They are rather, collections of colors, each being uniquely observed at a different recipe, grind, time, temperature, or palate. This is what's so beautiful about coffee. It's not one color - it's many colors. If you don't like orange, try purple and red. If brown is more your thing, that's great too! The question with any coffee is, what color palette am I starting with and how am I going to mix these hues through extraction to create the most inspired work of art I can?
Until next time, happy brewing!