Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Coffee Cups 101: Cup Materials

There are a lot of things to consider when you choose how you will drink or serve your coffee. One of the BIGGEST things to think about is what you will actually be putting the coffee in!

The answer, of course, is CUPS!

One of the things that I love the most about drinking a cup of coffee is feeling the warm mug in my hand. A good mug is almost a nice as a good cup of coffee. This is especially true on cold winter days, which we are having plenty of here in Chicago.

 In the next few weeks I would like to explore the various kinds of cups and mugs you might see at a coffee shop, and explain why you might want to use them.

Today we will be looking at the materials your cup is made out of!
Coffee cups can be made out of many things.

They can be:
or even a combination of things.

What follows is a look at these common materials and why you may (or may not) want to serve coffee in them.

Plastic cups, although not common in cafes, are the bread and butter of the travel mug industry. Almost every cup you are given as a cheap attempt at a brad recognition campaign will be plastic. Many of the cups you can buy at your local target will also be plastic. It's easy to find yourself using a plastic to go cup without even thinking about it. Unfortunately, this may not be a good thing. Plastic has not had a very good track record as a beverage container. There is a lot of cheap plastic out there that you will need to avoid. Make sure your cup does not contain Bisphenol A (BPA). This is a substance found in a lot of plastics that is now widely believed to be a toxic substance. You will also want to look out for cheaper plastics that will melt at higher heats. If your cup is not dishwasher safe there is a good change it will make your coffee taste a little funny. Plastics also don't retain heat well so your coffee will often cool quickly. On top of all of that, you have to admit that drinking out of plastic just doesn't feel very nice.
NLDR: Avoid plastics if possible, they're kind of gross

Paper cups are involved in a love/hate relationship with all cafe owners. Without them it would be difficult to make a profit, but they are just TERRIBLE. Paper cups are available at almost all cafes, but that doesn't mean you should use them. Not only do they add a nasty paper taste to your coffee, they are also simply just filling up landfills. They don't keep heat in efficiently. They cost the cafe extra money for something you are just going to throw away.I DON'T LIKE PAPER CUPS!

If you HAVE to use them be aware of a few things you should know

  • Don't use cups that have a wax coating. The wax will melt into your coffee. You don't want to drink wax do you?
  • Cups are NOT often recycled. Putting them in the recycling just means there will be one more step until they get to the landfill.
  • You can get cups made out of recycled paper
  • PLEASE, do not throw away a cup that is STILL FILLED WITH LIQUID. Real people have to clean up your mess, and it's not fun.
  • Although there are some cups that are "biodegradable", very few places will actually compost the cups. If you want to be green, you will have to compost the cups yourself.
  • One last thing, if you are thinking about using STYROFOAM cups instead. JUST SAY NO! They make you look cheap, they taste awful, and are simply terrible for the enviroment
A metal coffee cup isn't as common as a plastic or a paper cup, but you still see a lot of them. I see metal cups mostly as travel mugs. Although metal mugs have existed for about 4,000 years they have rarely been used for hot beverages. The heat conductivity makes it difficult to hold if the contents are hot. This is why most metal travel mugs also include more insulated materials. 
There are a few things you should know about metal mugs:
  • Metal is light weight and durable which makes it great for camping gear, but just because you have a camping mug doesn't mean your coffee will taste good
  • Many metal cups can leave a taste in your coffee. Look for cups made out of stainless steel, aluminum has a flavor that doesn't go well with coffee.
  • Metal cups heat up quickly, but also lose heat quickly. Don't use a metal cup if you want your coffee to stay hot
Ceramic cups have been around longer then anything else. They were invented in East Asia over 12,000 years ago! There is a good reason ceramic has stuck around so long. It's great! I love ceramic cups. They holy heat well, they feel nice when you hold them, they don't add funny flavors to your coffee (as long as they have a glaze applied). I drink out of a ceramic cup 90% of the time. However there are a few thing that you should know about ceramic cups:
  • Once a ceramic cup is cracked it will build up bacteria in the cracks. you will have to throw it away (otherwise it's a health code violation)
  • If you own a cafe make sure you look into heath code regulations. You may not be allowed to fill cups that customers bring in (since you don't know if they are clean). An alternative to this is to have a "mug club" of some sort where people can keep their mugs at the shop and get them cleaned when they are done.
  • Ceramic breaks very easily... providing these kinds of cups will save you money on paper cups, but may wind up costing you more if people drop the ceramic a lot.
Glass has many of the advantages, and the disadvantages of ceramic They both don't effect the taste of coffee negatively, they both can feel nice to hold, and they both break very easily. In fact glass is technically a noncrystalline ceramic. Very few people use glass cups for coffee, but it has become an option in many shops in the last ten years. A drink called the "Gibralter" has taken it's place many specialty coffee shops. This is a drink that uses a cup like the one seen in the picture. I personally love drinking out of little glass cups like this.
There are some things you should know about glass:
  • It doesn't hold in heat as well as most ceramic cups
  • It gives you a nice look into what's going on below the surface of your coffee (which i think it pretty cool)
  • It isn't as traditional, or as aesthetically pleasing as ceramic, so make sure you offer ceramic too


  1. You are correct on metal cups
    Being the smart guy that I am. I purchased some old style tin cups that looked like porcelain.
    Thought they would hold the heat and be good to drink out of
    I poured a boiling cup of coffee into one, and the cup is instant hot
    Not to be out done (and that should have turned a light on )
    I put a small towel around it so I can hold it.
    Then I turn it up to take a drink. Once I got it pulled loose from my now burned to 3rd. degree lip off of it, I realized that you could not drink hot coffee from one
    I remember back as a kid that Mom had cups that held heat for some time and yet you could drink out of them.
    Thanks for your column as it seems harder and harder to find a could cup

  2. When you want to get something special for your loved ones, you must look out for the personalized photo mugs & coffee mugs online

  3. I stopped drinking coffee at Starbucks because of the cups. I like my coffee in a nice ceramic or china or porcelain unless its on the go... Hope Starbucks is listening...

  4. Great post about the Cup Materials and what They can be used for making the cold cups Plastic,paper,metal,glass,ceramic,
    or even a combination of things.

  5. The mugs which are stainless steel coffee mug with lid are the ideal cups for having a cup of coffee especially when you are at go. You could be going to office, travelling, or simply carrying it at your kitchen garden. The stainless steel is tough and right choice.

  6. There are coffee mugs made up of different material but the one which are made of stainless is the best. Reusable stainless coffee cup can be insulated as it keeps your coffee warm for many extended time. Also it is good as it can be easily washed with hands or with the dishwasher.