How our perceptions shape our taste experiences

We spend a lot of time in the industry discussing the importance of story and its role in developing brand loyalty. Origin, traceability, certifications, and sustainability all have become critical attributes that help to define our coffee experience. There is no question that story telling fosters connections, but can it actually change the way that the coffee tastes? According to research on extrinsic attributes, the answer is a resounding yes.

On 18 October, the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) launched the Green Coffee Summit (a two-day virtual event) with a dynamic dialogue about attributes: specifically descriptive, intrinsic, and extrinsic, and their role in cupping. Although I was intrigued by all three parts of the puzzle, it was the dialogue about extrinsic attributes, that had me heading down a research rabbit hole.

During this journey, I rewatched Peter Giuliano’s, chief research officer, SCA, talk at Re:co Symposium, “The Power of the Extrinsic,” where he explored a variety of products, including soda and ham, to demonstrate how extrinsic information shaped the consumer experience. In the case of soda, consumers’ preferences were divided between Pepsi and Coca-Cola when the labels were removed. However, once the labels were shown, Giuliano, shared that people preferred Coca-Cola by a significant margin. This connection was demonstrated across various products illustrating how information about the brand shaped and shifted our taste experience.

The analytical side of me struggled with this disconnect between information in bias. I have been taught that knowledge about a subject helps to lessen our biases, but in the case of taste, the opposite seems to hold true.

Stories about the coffee provide our brain with information beyond the tasting notes, shifting our perception. In the talk at Green Coffee Summit, Jenn Rugolo, editor of the SCA’s 25 Magazine, shared the impact of extrinsic attributes and how every aspect of the experience, from the stories about the product to the colour of the cup, can alter our taste impression. “The shape of the cup, aroma, taste, even the texture of the vessel can alter the experience of the coffee inside,” said Rugulo. “But what is around the cup matters too.”

During her talk, Rugulo shared several research studies that investigated the role of extrinsic experiences in our taste experience. One study looked at the role of music on our taste experience. I found it intriguing that something as simple as hearing different genres of music and soundscapes could alter the perception of bitterness and sweetness.

The dramatic impact of extrinsic attributes really brings to light the extreme difficulty of conducting unbiased cupping. As emphasised by Giuliano, we are bias machines, and although our positive biases are wonderful to tap into to develop brand loyalty, these extrinsic attributes, if left unchecked, will alter our perceptions of the cup.

  • A frequent contributor to T&CTJ, Anne-Marie Hardie is a freelance writer, professor and speaker based in Barrie, Ontario. She may be reached at: [email protected].

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