Covid-19 has changed the way we consume coffee. There’s a lot to say on the topic, but the part that interests me the most is the loss of café culture and its impact on top-tier coffees. 

What do we lose when we take coffee-to-go? Does that $5 cup still feel like value when served out of context? 

Whether we are ordering coffee online or getting it from the grocery store, more of us are making coffee at home. As we do so, we try to recreate a café experience; often by upgrading our home brewing setup, and/or dialling in daily with manual pour-overs. Let’s explore these efforts and their impact on our enjoyment of coffee.  

We then look to coffee takeout and ask, ‘does to-go take away any enjoyment’? Put differently, what happens when you take coffee out of its context; when you don’t have a barista to talk with or bar to sit at. In its absence, we are allowed to ask, ‘how does the culture of a café impact our experience with coffee?’

From routine to ritual

In many ways, the move to making coffee at home can lead to more enjoyment out of every cup. At its best, coffee is a ritual more than a routine; the main difference between the two is one of attitude. 

Routines are check-list items, to-dos like making the bed, stretching before a run or commuting to work. Rituals are sequences of activities that have meaning that engages more than one part of your mind. Rituals would be putting your child to sleep, yoga, or a Sunday morning joyride just for fun.

So, we can make coffee routine by pressing a button, or we can add some personality and purpose to it, making it a ritual. Wait, personality and purpose, you say? What does that look like anyway? 

Well, if our mindset is influenced by our setting, then we should focus on the context in which we make and take our coffee. In cognitive science speak this is called cross-modal perception: what you see/feel/hear will impact how you taste. 

It’s why latte art makes a difference; when someone is paying attention to this detail, it tells you that care was taken every step of the way. It’s why the flavor notes we read are so suggestively predictive of what we taste.

It’s salivating at the sound of water heating or coffee being poured. It’s a clean countertop, the soft bright lighting, and maybe some music. It’s taking the time to smell the coffee right as its being ground, seeing the ochre amber liquid through the glass, and burying your face in a freshly filled mug that’s still too hot to drink.  

Good settings also benefit from the halo effect; when we like one aspect of something, we will have a positive predisposition to like everything associated with it. Good brands, cafes, and baristas can all do this – we like the design, artwork, people or music, and therefore like the coffee all the more. 

So, take time to set the scene. I’m not a food photographer, but I imagine coffee tasting better if we took the time to stage it as if it were photoshoot. Having an audience –even if that audience is only you – adds some inkling of intentionality to every step of the process leading up to the presentation. 

Get a dedicated space to make coffee, and another to enjoy it. Get two types of mugs, so that you have a choice, but not too many choices. More choice leads to less happiness, but some choice assists in intentionality; what cognitive scientists describe as the ‘paradox of choice’. 

Moreover, having only two to three types of mugs to choose from encourages ‘functional fixedness’, the self­-fulfilling satisfaction that comes with the belief that specific objects are best for specific uses—this mug for the morning, for example, or this one for when you’re fatigued.

Cognitive science also suggests using a blue or pink round mug if you want a coffee to taste sweeter, or a white angular mug if you want it to be taste stronger. I prefer to use a clear glass, as it involves my eyes earlier in the process.1 

Forgotten flavor senses

It turns out, this isn’t just about perceptions. It’s emotional. Professor Charles Spence at Oxford University is credited as a pioneer in the cognitive science of cross modal perception.

Spence posits: “drinking a cup of coffee without one of the sensory 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 o coffee.

The experience is about much more than the smell or the taste of the coffee at that moment as research suggests that aroma can trigger emotions and evoke memories”.

And memories, it turns out, are powerful stuff!

Let’s consider that coffee is inherently bitter, and those bitter flavors are an acquired taste2. Where we acquire them makes a big difference in how we perceive – and enjoy – them.

For myself, it’s the smell of black coffee and burnt toast coming from my kitchen in the morning, and nursing a mug of much-welcomed, if oxidized diner coffee while I wait for breakfast after a long night out.

Smells, sights, sounds, textures – this is all context, unconscious cues that draw upon memories, make associations and impact our sense of taste. 

Spence takes this further by arguing that “at least half of our experience of food and drink is determined by the forgotten flavor senses of vision, sound and touch”. Some of the experiments that led him to this conclusion include: 

  • Heft. Adding 2.5oz of packaging weight to yoghurt makes it 25% more filling
  • Tones. Bittersweet toffee tastes 10% more bitter if eaten while listening to music with low tones; high tones confer more sweetness. 
  • Texture. Cookies are harder / crunchier when served from a rough-textured surface. 
  • Smile. Shoppers are twice as likely to buy a brand of juice with an upturned line on it, resembling a smile, than one with a downturned line. 
  • Volume. Louder fizzes make aerosol appear more masculine. It is the main difference between Dove and Ax deodorant; louder fizzes are also used to make canned beverages sound more functional (i.e., cracking open a red bull). 

These are examples of how objects involved in a ritual can take on additional importance. As we take coffee-to-go, we are consuming directly from a package (an often-cardboard cup). We lose context, and with it, much of the meaning is nested in our sensory memory.  

Knowing this, coffee purveyors can design the to-go experience for the forgotten senses. We can focus on colors and cups. We can pour coffee directly into the cup – in front of the customer3 – and suggest they take off the lid when they are ready to drink.

We can put more emphasis on the minimal interaction we have during collection, and go the extra mile in providing personalized recommendations –through online questionnaires, for example, or by offering contrasting choices. 

The last is an important example that draws on both ‘distinction bias’, the tendency to view two options as more different when evaluating them simultaneously, and the ‘contrast effect’, which exaggerates the perceived differences between options when they are presented sequentially or simultaneously.

For coffee-to-go, this comes back to offering at least two contrasting options – and perhaps framing their differences as ‘stronger than’, ‘sweeter than’, or ‘perfect for….’. 

For those who brew in-home, we have more options. We have a scale, a grinder, a funnel and a carafe just for coffee! And likely, a dedicated space for them all. We have more control over music, lighting, and presentation.

Especially if we are making manual pour-overs,4 which gives us just enough small decisions to make that each step feel more intentional. 

And this is where we depart from the personality of your brewing setup to the purpose of it all. 

A large part of the café experience is learning

Exploring new flavors, developing preferences, and building a mental map to better understand it all… turns out, this is all learning, and learning is a lot of what makes coffee more than just hot, caffeinated bean water. 

Cognitive science has a thing or two to say about this too. The adult learning model, for instance, holds that we go through three stages of learning: awareness, more in-depth understanding and ownership. Throughout it all, we are getting better at making, ordering and appreciating coffee. And, it turns out, progress tastes great. 

The first stage is awareness. Awareness is all about flavors; exploring the wonderful wide world of specialty. But this journey is often kicked off by one specific coffee – your ‘come to coffee’ moment that teaches you that coffee can taste differently than you thought it did. From there we go on to explore region and countries, wet-hulled and naturals. 

Along the way we build and test hypothesis that helps deepen our understanding of coffee.

Latin American coffees are mild and nutty, naturals are fruity, oily beans are good, but this coffee hurts my stomach. Regardless of whether they are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, these frameworks are garden beds in which what we learn about coffee grows into meaningful understanding.

We get a jolt of confirmation bias when coffee tastes like we thought it would, and the joy of discovering something new when it does not. It’s a virtuous cycle of curiosity whose reward comes in every sip. 

But nothing, it seems, is complete until we share it. Ownership comes when you have a ‘favorite’ coffee, brand, origin, processing method or, even, mug.

Preferences mature into opinions, which we try out on others, and eventually proselytize. This is the process of internalizing information until it becomes your own perspective on the matter. Like all new points of view, when we think we are on to something we want to share. 

Which brings us to the other side of the story; what we lose when we take specialty to-go. And that’s the social side of coffee. We miss the opportunity to see, be seen, and interact. The third place is a neutral ground for social interactions. It’s not the office or the home – it’s something else entirely.  

Passion speaks, and it’s hard to get excited about coffee all by yourself. Passion needs the tinder of other people’s interest to live. And when it catches, it spreads like fire. To me, it’s pretty clear why I like something more when it’s recommended by someone else, but cognitive science would argue less that I like passion but that I’m subject to the Forer and Bandwagon Effects.  

The Forer effect is incredibly common, but most commonly described through horoscopes; we are likely to believe recommendations which are seemingly tailored to us, even if they are in fact vague and general enough to apply to a wide variety of people.

So, when a barista tells me that a coffee ‘is a bestseller’ I don’t get much of a jolt, but when they tell me ‘you’d really like this one’ I do. Implicitly, we get this jolt by seeing ourselves in other customers who frequent a particular café; if they like it, and I like them, then I will like it too. 

This borders the bandwagon effect, which we all know describes how adoption increases, the more we perceive that something has already been adopted by others. Especially if we think these others are like us, or even better than us.

Which is why I look to baristas for recommendations; if they’re on board, then I will be too. Add to this ‘social desirability bias’, which means that we like things we think others will view favourably, and ‘consistency bias’, which states that we are likely to double-down on past preferences – and we have the basis for brand loyalty. 

But if we are loyal to a brand, and no one is around to witness our loyalty, does it even matter at all? If we love coffee, but all by ourselves, we are only connecting with the coffee. And people are infinitely more interesting than coffee.5 

When we take specialty coffee-to-go, it is reduced to just coffee and less a learning or social experience, or an excuse to step-away.

We miss out on having a dedicated place – a space dedicated to coffee. Working from home is hard enough because of the emotional and actual noise; appreciating coffee is no different. How many times have you tried to take a sip from an empty mug? At home, often. At a café, nearly never.  

While brewing coffee at home gives us more control over set and setting, it lacks the dedicated space and socialization. It’s less connected to the supply-chain that brought it to you, the people who care about it the most.

Coffee carries additional authenticity when it comes from the café, and tastes better because of it. The more people care about a coffee, the more likely we are to care about it too – and the better it will taste to you. 

People are what make coffee special, and without the human touch, I fear that coffee will struggle to realize it’s potential at the upper-extent of what’s possible. This could have long-term effects on supply; if no one is buying top-tier competition-level quality coffee, then farmers won’t invest in them either.

Top qualities today eclipse that which was possible a decade ago, but they could disappear just as quickly. In this case, it may not be that the objective quality fades, but that the subjective setting has changed, capping our appreciation of these advances. 

New ways to find meaning in our morning cup

As ‘online’ becomes a more meaningful place to meet, we can connect through calibration clubs like Angels Cup. Subscriptions such as these bring back recommendations, personalization, brand identification, connection to an expert community, and learning through to sharing. 

And it’s likely that cafés will adapt, moving outdoors for example. So far this summer has been one where all of America has come to appreciate our parks all the more. I can see kiosks and carts dotting park paths and dotting the tree-line; the post-covid café as nature’s cathedral. As coffee goes outdoors, I’d expect we design better ways to take it with us – I’m looking at you coffee caterers, cold brew, and specialty instant. 

I imagine a flourish of innovation in gear and equipment as more people get geeky. That would come with a new crop of roast-at-home DIYers bringing novel ideas and, perhaps, even designing novel brewing devices that are designed as much for joy as for flavor.6 

As America returns to work, we will be forming a new relationship with our workplace, maybe blending what was once our second and third place. I can see kiosks replacing food courts, and cafés growing into empty offices to become the next shared workspace.

I can see hotels and restaurants replacing carafes with a more sanitary (and specialty) French press service. If adequately supported, these shifts could see the café experience extend out through a roasters’ wholesale network. 

And it’s likely that to-go coffee will expand from brewed to bean. Get flowers from a flower shop (not Home Depot), get wine from a wine merchant (not the supermarket). And get your coffee from a coffee shop – even and especially those who brew at home. I can see cafes becoming centers of takeout education, cross-marketing beans and grinders with every cup. 

More innovative programs will go past printing content and posting online, to a more complex framing and presentation of their products. A sensorial series, for example, with multiple samples of contrasting coffees by varietal, region, processing method or otherwise.

We’ll see new loyalty programs that encourage sharing and learning. And the difference between online and in-person will fade at the same time, the lines blur between home and café. 

What happens next? Competition, of course. Retailers will be eager to keep the gains that have come from their coffee aisle and are likely to launch local buying programs to compete with the same cafes that are clawing back their customers.

We’re going to see identity politics at play as more prominent brands partner-up with lifestyle, community, or affinity groups – giving us brands specifically for cyclists, libertarians, or university alums (for example). 

And, in the end, I think we all win. Coffee lovers get more ways to fall in love. The Café will still be there, but as the hub and spoke of the experience. Roasters will have more distribution channels. The online world, for example, has already opened up new categories for roasters. And the supply-chain wins, since all of these outlets reward excellent, information-rich coffees. 

  1. I have two main mugs, both see-through; a stemless vacuum bulb, and a glass diner mug. The latter is my morning workhorse, the bulb I’ll sip through the afternoon. Okay, so I do have a third set – small ceramics from Brazil that I use with guests. 

2. There is a well-studied genetic component to one’s sensitivity to bitterness; the TAS2R38 gene. But sensitivity to bitterness does not correlate to favorable or unfavorable perceptions of bitterness. 

3. Maybe even from high-up; consider Philz’s approach of pouring coffee from ~ 12″ above the cup, emphasizing the sound and bubbles that come from pouring coffee. Anecdotally I know this gets me; I associate both with the freshness of a coffee.  

4. If you use an automatic brewer, you’re all good too. An idea – try cleaning your machine before each brew. Running a quarter cycle of hot water through before adding coffee a good way to pre-heat the machine, wet your filter and clear out any remaining gunk in the pipes. It’s also one more small step that makes the routine of button-pushing into a routine.

Also, if you have the type of brewer that allows you to open it up mid-brew, without making too much of a mess, do so, and give the grounds a frisky whisk mid-brew. This should turn the color from black to khaki, release more oils, and give you a sneak peek of the wonderful cup that’s yet to come!

5. That is, after you’ve had your first cup of the day – of course 

6. I’ve long wanted to see a SAFE lineup of kinesthetic brewing devices; home lever machines, for example, or those which use centrifugal force. 

Jacob Elster is a sourcing representative for Crop to Cup. You can find out more about them at www.croptocup.com

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