Science Explains Why You Can't Part Ways With Your Favorite Coffee Mug
Mugs are an essential part of everyone's coffee routine. Beyond holding your morning cup of joe, they're often attached to powerful memories: Perhaps yours is a souvenir from a meaningful vacation; a misshaped memento from a 'sip and ceramics' class you attended in your twenties; or one of a pair given to you by your best friend (and she has the other). Whatever the significance, shape, or design of your favorite mug, it no doubt makes your morning coffee much more enjoyable.
My vessel of choice is Golden Brown Coffee’s “Perfect Coffee Cup," a ceramic mug I bought on a whim one afternoon while shopping for espresso beans. I love its exterior color (“White Raku”) and contrasting tan bottom; and the way its glazed finish amplifies both. It's a simple design that reminds me of a mug I made in a beginner's pottery class years ago. (Of course, it's better than my DIY version.) Plus, it holds about 200 milliliters (ml) of coffee, which is the perfect amount for one sitting. I love this mug so much — to the point where I will only drink coffee if it's in this mug — that I've wondered if I'm a little too obsessed with it. I know I'm not alone; Favorites are a universal concept, whether favorite hats, spoons, blankets, or mugs. But why? What makes us cherish something as ordinary as a coffee mug? As always, science has answers.
Reasons Why You Have a Favorite Mug
Your favorite coffee mug’s sentimental value makes it hard to imagine life without. A 2021 review of studies discussed the way emotional attachment to certain objects may increase with age, as we accrue more life events and transitions (like the loss of a loved one or retirement).
While a mug is often tied to a memory, that’s not the only reason you continuously reach for it. According to research, the mug’s shape and color may also play a role in your perception of the coffee’s taste and smell. So, if you believe the mug’s design helps enhance your coffee’s flavor, you'll keep pulling it out (even if it means washing it every single day).
Here are two studies demonstrating the impact of a coffee mug’s design on the drink’s perceived taste and aroma.
A 2014 study investigated whether the color of a mug influences the coffee’s taste. This experiment involved 18 participants; nine were women and the average age was 32 years old. Participants were asked to drink a 200 ml latte out of a clear glass, white ceramic, or blue mug. Then, they reported on their perception of the coffee’s flavor. A key finding from the experiment was that sipping coffee out of the white mug boosted its intense taste as compared to the glass mug.
Since the mugs varied in materials, researchers conducted a second experiment using identical glass mugs with colored sleeves. This experiment included 36 volunteers (30 women) with an average age of 40 years old. Each participant drank a 200 ml latte out of a glass mug. The mugs either had a blue or white sleeve, or no sleeve at all. The results showed that coffee consumed from a white mug tasted less sweet than coffee consumed from both the blue mug and the glass mug.
Researchers theorized that the color contrast between the mug and the coffee affected the drink’s perceived intensity. Brown coffee in a white mug would, thus, be perceived as stronger (and for coffee, stronger typically means less sweet and more bitter).
A mug’s shape can also play a role in how you enjoy coffee. Research published in the journal Food Quality and Preference examined whether a coffee cup's shape affects the perception of the drink's aroma and taste. This study was conducted at a specialty coffee event in Brazil and involved 276 participants, with each assigned a testing group based on the shape of their cup. Researchers described these cups as being either "open," "tulip," or "split-shaped." Participants rated their experience of the coffee’s aroma, acidity, sweetness, and enjoyment while drinking.
Collectively, the participants found that the coffee’s aroma was stronger when served out of the tulip-shaped cup. A possible explanation from researchers: The tulip cup's large opening allowed participants to inhale more of the coffee's complex aromas.
The coffee’s sweetness and acidity, however, were perceived as more intense when sipped from the split cup. This finding aligned with previous research that concluded round shapes increase perceived sweetness in certain foods and drinks. Ultimately, this study reveals an interesting connection between a coffee cup’s shape and your tasting experience.
Coffee Mug Magic
Mugs come in all different shapes, sizes, and colors. While yours is undoubtedly unique, these scientific studies provide some insight into why we all gravitate towards a certain one. Whether a keepsake or new addition to the collection, your favorite mug gets better with time (provided you care for it correctly) — so, cheers to drinking copious amounts of coffee!