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The 6 Best Materials for Coffee Cups

You would be surprised at how little attention some coffee lovers give to their cups. That’s why taking a little time to research can help you pick the perfect cup for your daily coffees.

Materials for Coffee Cups

Even though many coffee aficionados agree that a ceramic mug is the best overall material, it will not always suit where and when coffee is being drunk. In addition, shape and design are two other things to keep in mind.

Buying an ideal coffee mug requires knowing what the best materials are for coffee cups. Buy the right kind and it will become the favorite, go-to cup.

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MaterialAdvantagesDisadvantages
CeramicReasonably priced
Readably available
Plenty of choices to allow drinkers to express their personality
Doesn’t affect the taste of coffee
Coffee cools down quickly
Fixes that keep coffee hot are expensive
Stains over time
Chips more easily than steel or stoneware
StonewareMore resistant to chipping
Aesthetically appealing
More expensive than ceramic
Heavy 
Stainless SteelHold heat extremely well
Unbreakable
Practical for travel
Mostly used in travel mugs and thermos
Affects the flavor of the coffee
Not for savoring high-quality coffee
GlassAesthetically pleasing in a chic, elegant manner
Taste neutral
Glass is a poor insulator
Insulated glass mugs are fragile
PlasticLightweight
Spill proof and won’t break with normal falls
Inexpensive
Coffee oils leech into the plastic, affecting the flavor
Not sophisticated
Not environmentally friendly
PaperLightweight and portable
Recyclable
Can’t be reused
Imparts outside flavors into the coffee
Appropriate for parties (or opening a coffee shop)
StyrofoamCheap
Surprisingly, keeps coffee hotter
Too many to list

Why You Should Consider Ceramic Cups

Scrabble K & T cups with black coffee in them.

Ceramic cups are the most popular cup.  Say a coffee cup, and this is the kind of cup that people picture. You probably have at least several in your cupboard. Coffee shops, restaurants, breakrooms—ceramic is everywhere. So why not just buy a cute ceramic mug—perhaps something like this? 

Ceramic cups certainly have some advantages, which explains their ubiquity.

  • Inexpensive
  • Variety of sizes and styles
  • Not too heavy
  • Doesn’t affect the flavor 
  • But look closely at the shape. See how the top is wider than the base? Looks aesthetically pleasing, right?  So, what’s wrong with that? It lets out heat like crazy. 

That’s disadvantage number one.  Some manufacturers attempt to solve that problem by having thicker cups. The extra weight means handles that seem to be designed for people with tiny fingers.  I usually pick them up by the side, which makes for awkward drinking. And if I can pick up a coffee mug by its side, obviously the coffee is still cooling down.

Ceramic cups can also chip.  And they aren’t very portable either when filled with coffee.  Nothing like splashing hot(ish) coffee on your fingers!

Two Solutions to Heat Loss

Some manufacturers have tried to solve the problem.  One solution is to manufacturer the cup so a lid fits on top, sealing the heat in.  Semi-practical for carrying coffee, but if I want my cup of joe to stay hot for a long time while I sip away, I prefer an insulated, stainless-steel mug.

Another solution is to provide a heat source. One way to do that is a heating pad, barely larger than the mug, which keeps the mug warm. Great idea, if you have a plug close by. A bit more spendy coffee mug is warmer with wireless chargers (which can also be used to charge your phone).

Or, you can heat the entire mug. That’s the idea behind the Ember Mug, a coffee cup that even has its own app. You control the temperature settings through your I-phone or Apple Watch.  Check out the demo video if interested. Be advised—it’s a pricey choice.

Ceramic Cup 

AdvantagesNegatives
Reasonably priced
Easily available
Plenty of choices to allow the drinker to express their personality
It doesn’t affect the taste of coffee
Coffee cools down quickly
Fixes that keep coffee hot are expensive
Stains over time
Chips more easily than steel or stoneware

Why You Should Consider Stoneware

What’s the difference? Thought you’d never ask. Stoneware is a type of pottery that is fired at a much higher temperature than what we commonly call ceramic (or its more expensive cousin, porcelain).  Because of the higher temperatures (2370 degrees!), stoneware does not need to be glazed.  

Stoneware mugs are not as commonly found.  And they are a little more expensive. So why buy one?  For one, they are stronger and more resistant to chipping. They typically last longer than ceramic or porcelain.  But those are not the only reason to give one as a present.

The real reasons are appearance.  History. Game of Thrones.  

Yes, there really is a Game of Thrones coffee mug. And one with a mermaid on it. And handmade ones from around the globe.

I use only eco-materials to make my pottery, white stoneware clay, and milk, so all my products are eco-friendly. The creation process starts on the potter’s wheel. After shaping I dry raw products during 1-2 days and put them into the kiln for the first firing at temperature 1000-1200 °C.  

 Try finding a description like that from the heart-shaped coffee mug.

If the coffee lover in your life is a history buff, loves going to craft shows, or wants something that is one-of-a-kind, my recommendation would be stoneware. They are not cups to love, but cups to cherish.

Stoneware

AdvantagesNegatives
Unique, hand-made
Sturdy, less likely to chip
Doesn’t affect the flavor of coffee
More expensive
Not available just anywhere
They don’t keep coffee hot any longer than ceramic mugs

Why You Should Consider Stainless Steel

Stainless is a popular alternative to ceramic that solves two problems—temperature and portability.  Similar to a thermos, stainless steel coffee cups have a double-walled design which creates a pocket of air that does not allow the heat to dissipate as quickly. In addition, the lid also contributes to keeping the coffee warm.

The lid also makes stainless steel cups portable.  Ideally, you want a lid where the opening closes automatically.  Stainless steel cups are often thin and top-heavy so they can fit into cup holders.  Even though the outside of insulated coffee mugs is cool to the touch, I like ones with carrying handles.  I have tucked the handle into my back pocket while I was opening a door with groceries in my other hand. 

In addition, the lid is spill-proof because as soon as you let go, the lid seals the coffee in. I had one that got a dent when it fell on a concrete floor and still didn’t spill.

Why This Might Not Be a Good Choice

This is a great cup for keeping coffee hot and portability. If you’re buying this for someone who needs a sturdy travel mug, a stainless-steel mug is an excellent choice.  However, unlike ceramic cups, stainless steel cups affect the flavor of the coffee. Sooner or later the finishes begin to wear down, changing the flavor of the coffee. Coffee drinkers sometimes report the coffee begins to develop a “metallic” flavor.

Also, the plastic lids eventually absorb flavors of the coffee. And since taste is dependent on smell, eventually the coffee will taste different.

Therefore, a stainless-steel mug is a practical cup.  It is not a cup to use when savoring a cup of high-quality coffee.

Stainless Steel

AdvantagesNegatives
Hold heat extremely well
Unbreakable
Practical for travel
Mostly used in travel mugs and thermos
Affects the flavor of the coffee
Not for savoring high-quality coffee

What Does Insulated Cup Mean?

We have been talking about insulated cups several times, so this is a good time to discuss what exactly insulated means.  Like the word porcelain, which can mean several different kinds of clay-based products, insulation is another word that has several meanings:

  • Insulated cups—these cups have an inner and outer wall to help keep coffee warm. The inner and outer walls can be made from the same materials, such as steel, although other materials, such as ceramic, glass, even plastic are used nowadays. 
  • Vacuum cups—a type of insulated cup where the space between the inner and outer walls is a vacuum.  Without air molecules, it’s difficult for the heat to radiate out of the cup. True vacuums are chiefly used in the creation of thermoses.
  • Thermal cups—thermal cups can use either of these, or some other method, to keep coffee hot, whether it be double walls, a vacuum, or the use of specially constructed paper cups.   

Why You Should Consider Glass

Double walled glass with pumpkin spice latte
Double walled glass with pumpkin spice latte

Glass coffee cups conjure up a sophisticated image. For a coffee lover, there’s something special about seeing one’s favorite brew in its full, technicolor glory. And if Irish Coffee is your thing, then a glass mug is a non-negotiable.  Glass is elegant and chic. What’s not to like about glass coffee mugs?

The glass. Specifically, what the glass does to the heat. It lets it leave—quickly.  Glass is a poor insulator. Also, glass has a tendency to shatter when it falls.   

Still, it’s chic and elegant, so some glass manufacturers have developed a solution.  By creating double-walled glass mugs, they have provided an envelope that holds in air, similar to double-paned windows.  Style with improved heat retention!

Why This Might Not Be a Good Choice

To manufacture a double-walled glass mug, designers had to use thinner glass.  Thinner glass means fragile glass. The Bodum Pavina glass coffee mugs have a 4 ½ star rating, but the instructions also say to avoid using metal spoons.  One of the reviewers writes:

I use wooden chopsticks to stir cream into my morning coffee

I would recommend buying a couple to have for a fancy coffee treat; otherwise, keep them stored away to avoid breaking them.  

Glass

AdvantagesNegatives
Aesthetically pleasing in a chic, elegant manner
Taste neutral
Glass is a poor insulator
Insulated glass mugs are fragile

Why Plastic Might be a Possibility

Plastic coffee mugs have come a long way from the bulky, uninsulated mugs typically sold at convenience stores and truck stops.  Nowadays coffee mugs made from plastic come in a variety of sizes and styles. Some are plain and inexpensive while others look more sophisticated, with coffee sleeves to make them look sophisticated.

Plastic mugs have some additional benefits—they are inexpensive, light, and typically insulated.  Like steel, they won’t easily break and the lids make them spill-proof (as long as you tightened the lid!)

Plastic Has Several Negatives

One thing about plastic is that over time coffee oils get trapped in the plastic.  Like steel, a coffee lover wants to taste today’s coffee, not yesterday’s or last month’s.  Also, it is difficult to recycle plastic coffee mugs when it’s time to trash them.  

Plastic

AdvantagesNegatives
Lightweight
Spill proof and won’t break with normal falls
Inexpensive
Coffee oils leech into the plastic, affecting the flavor
Not sophisticated
Not environmentally friendly

If you are planning on buying a plastic mug, one that might be appreciated is the Ruumi Rev-Air Ergonomic mug. What a coffee drinker on the go will appreciate is the lid design.  Due to its recesses lid, it’s easier to see over it while sipping and driving. Also, the lid makes it less likely that you will get the dreaded nose drip when you tilt the cup up.

Why Paper is Not a Good Gift

Although you were probably not thinking of gifting paper cups, it’s important to note that even though paper itself doesn’t affect the flavor of coffee, it does soak up flavors and odors besides coffee.  In addition, while paper is light and portable and is often manufactured to be recyclable, it still has to be thrown away soon enough. I’ve washed a paper cup once, but it went into the recycle bin shortly afterward.
Paper

AdvantagesNegatives
Lightweight and portable
Recyclable 
Can’t be reused
Imparts outside flavors into the coffee
Appropriate for parties (or opening a coffee shop)

Why You Should Not Buy Styrofoam

The reasons are plenty: not environmentally friendly. Not appropriate for gifts (Obvious, I know. But I still had to say it.)  

And yes, I’ve been at the store to purchase party supplies, looked at the paper ones, realized I had already gone over budget, looked around to make sure no one I knew was watching, and dashed to pay before anyone I knew saw me.  

What I learned—the guilt wasn’t worth the savings.

And One Surprising Advantage

In the pursuit of a cup that keeps coffee hot the longest, the winner is, surprisingly Styrofoam.   The manufacture of polystyrene foam, or Styrofoam, traps air bubbles, and those air bubbles help prevent the heat of the coffee from escaping.

Here’s one YouTube video from the ThisVsThatShow that plainly shows that Styrofoam does indeed keep coffee hotter. 

Styrofoam

AdvantagesNegatives
Cheap
Surprisingly, keeps coffee hotter
Too many to list

Why You Should Consider Color

Surprisingly, the color of coffee mugs affects what people think about coffee’s taste.  In an experiment conducted in Australia, researchers discovered that subjects rated coffee’s tastes differently based on the color of the mug.  Specifically, when tasting coffee from a white mug, they rated the coffee sweeter than the same coffee from a blue cup. As the writer put it: 

These results support the view that the colour of the mug should be considered by those serving coffee as it can influence the consumer’s multisensory coffee drinking experience.

Source:  Flavor Journal 

The Shape of a Mug Affects Taste

There’s a reason that people with a cold and stuffy nose don’t taste their food. A large percentage of what we refer to as taste is based on what we smell.  That is one reason why coffee shops often pour coffee into wide-mouthed cups. Wide-mouthed cups allow more of coffee’s aroma to escape. This increased aroma increases the pleasure of excellent coffee.

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