Why We Like Coffee, According to Science
A psychologist, two coffee experts, and a caffeine-addicted journalist have some thoughts
There are a numbers of vital questions every person has to ask while on the path to enlightenment. There’s the typical “why should I do with my life” that can be addressed with a trip to Thailand or Europe and a hot summer fling, and then there are the atypical questions that will unravel your brain one cell at a time. You know, questions like “what if we’re all living in a simulation?” or “why do I have to breathe so often?” But the biggest question—the one that may shake you to your very core— involves everyone’s favorite morning drink: coffee.
Do you like coffee? Like, actually enjoy the taste of coffee, not just the effect that it has, or the routine that gives your life purpose? The question doesn’t just stop at taste, either; it’s about society’s idea of good coffee versus bad coffee. What’s the difference? Could you tell a cup of single-origin coffee from Hawaii if it was given to you in a Dunkin Donuts cup? In the journey to find out what it all means, we tried to answer the big questions.
First of all, why do we like coffee at all? How the hell could we as humans possibly enjoy such a bitter substance?
Do you remember your first cup of coffee? I remember mine: I snuck a sip from my mom’s cup and spit it back in without her noticing. It was hot, acidic, and chalky all at once, but here I am—20 years later—unable to get through a day without two or three cup’s worth of the stuff.
Gary L. Wenk, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Ohio State University, blames it on monkey-see, monkey-do human habit.
“Goodness, there are SO many examples of people liking things that initially taste terrible, like tobacco, beer, hot peppers, and tea,” says Wenk. “All that matters at first is that we see others enjoying it. Humans, similar to all primates, benefit by mimicking the behaviors of others.”
While Wenk suggests that we’re all just kind of “going with it” there’s more of a science to it than we think.
“It starts out as societal pressure and then we enjoy the smell of the ground powder, the ritual of its preparation, and the time taken to sit down and enjoy the coffee either alone or with others. Ultimately, our brain responds with a nice release of dopamine.”
Basically, we like coffee because we like liking what other people like. So what makes us prefer some types of coffee over others?
“Some of my students enjoy ‘monkey poop coffee’ which costs $800 a pound,” says Wenk. “They claim it tastes better after it’s passed through the animal's intestines. I blame it all on the placebo effect.”
Essentially, people think they like civet coffee because it’s pricey and rare, and humans, in general, can’t help but be attracted to things that seem valuable or exclusive.
Obviously, though, people prefer some cups of coffee to others and—like cigarettes or booze—have their own personal favorite. We asked Genevieve Kappler, Director of Coffee and Coffee Master for Roasting Plant, her view on the matter.
“Once you taste a great bean, it’s hard to still appreciate cheap, stale coffee. Of course, cultural factors [and] emotional memories will influence what we like or not... even music is believed to have an influence on taste.”
For Kappler, “A great cup of coffee begins with the best beans: fresh green from the current crop year, roasted in the past 24 to 72 hours, ground and brewed immediately after grinding. The sweetest fresh aromas disappear within 15 minutes of grinding and oxidation starts from the moment the beans are ground, which increase as time passes."
But this view, of course, is coming from an expert.
“Discussing personal flavor preference is difficult as it’s like analyzing why one person likes rock and another likes country… however, even if you hate the style, you can recognize the beauty and talent. Same for coffee,” Kappler explained. “If you grew up with cheap brand like Folgers, and it relates to a sweet memory, then sure, the cheap brand will always have a space. Good coffee is an affordable luxury; the few extra cents per cup are well worthwhile; more antioxidants, more flavors, more pleasure. It’s a no brainer.”
So how about the not-so-expensive stuff? Dunkin’ Donuts, while not necessarily equated with "luxury," certainly has a loyal fan club.
“Our coffees are...just part of the overall guest experience,” said Janet Rock, Senior Research and Development Technologist of Dunkin’ Brands. “Each year, we proudly serve over 1.9 billion cups of hot and iced coffee globally to our guests quickly, conveniently, and personalized just for them.”
People feel like they can get exactly what they want at Dunkin’, which is a large part of the appeal of the brand.
“Our [Culinary Excellence] team is a collection of food professionals across the board who specialize in research and development and have a hyper-curiosity for food, flavor and food experiences. On a daily basis, our team gets their inspiration from a range of sources, from food and flavor trends, to guest feedback, and popular culture… We think our coffee can compete anywhere and is one of the primary reasons our brand continues to grow.”
Sometimes people just have a soft spot for certain kinds of coffee—and that doesn’t necessarily mean one brand is better or worse in quality or taste. Everyone's taste is so particular to their experience, civet coffee can the very best coffee in the entire world, or just coffee. Same as any other brew.
In the end, what you like just kinda depends. Your preferences rest not only the way you taste, but your emotional ties to coffee as well. You could have the world's most “advanced palate," but if you grew up in a household where coffee is synonymous with, say, blinding pain and emotional trauma, you’re gonna hate it, no matter what kind of hoity-toity blend it is. On the other hand, if your go-to post-coital drink is a Dunkin’ Donuts iced coffee, you’re sure as shit going to prefer DD over the expensive stuff. So, really, it’s not so much “do we like coffee” as it is “what kind of coffee do we prefer and why?” And that’s entirely up to you and your brain.