Life is full of choices. As in all things, what may be right for you may not be right for some. With this in mind, we will take the good, take the bad, and then we’ll have… A guide that breaks down the things to consider when buying a reusable coffee mug.
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Summary / Best in class
I hate when pages force you to scroll through a bunch of crap to get to the one summary you are looking for. In the following sections I will elaborate and justify below, but here is your summary!
Insulation and leak-proof
Unfortunately, your coffee is going to have to be in contact with the cup. My experiences lead me to believe that glass/ceramic are best, stainless steel is ok, plastic is bad, rubberized parts are horrible.
This kind of makes sense. Plastic and rubbers, no matter how good, will leach a bit of material into your drink – at least at first (trust me, I am a polymer physicist). This, however, is a small effect compared to plastic and rubber’s ability to hold on to flavors. I have a bunch of travel mugs I would love to use, but no matter how much I wash them, I can’t get the taste of stale coffee out of them. Coffee is composed of many different molecules, including some pretty difficult to remove oils. If you reuse Ziplocks and Tupperware, you are likely familiar with the anguish of washing an oily bag.
While keeping plastic out of the body of the cup is most important, the lid also plays a roll. Keeping plastic out of the lid, though, is very difficult, so you may have to bite the bullet. On the other hand, my lovely sister managed to find a cup with a bamboo lid (with minimal rubber, only for the gaskets). I have been very impressed with this type of lid so far, and would consider it your best bet.
As far as body material goes, stainless steel is better than plastic, but only by a bit. The majority of cups will be made of stainless steel and these will range in prices greatly. The flavor retention, however, will not. If you end up going with steel, it is very important that you rinse your cup (or better yet, wash with soap) as soon as you are done with your coffee.
While the flavor retention of a cup is absolutely critical, the importance of insulation will depend from person to person.
The best insulation will come from a double-walled cup, and the best material here will be ceramic. That said, I’ve used some extremely impressive stainless-steel cups that keep your coffee hot for hours, and the glass/wood cup I recommended above will stay warm for a good hour or so. That’s more than enough for me, since I finish my drinks fairly quickly.
As with the above discussion, body is the most important, but the lid will also play a roll. This almost completely rules out glass since the only lids you tend to see with these are friction-fit, gasket varieties. These are fine, but you will lose a lot of heat here. If insulation is critical, you will want to look at screw-on lids. If insulation is the most important thing to you, I would highly recommend the Contigo double-walled stainless steel.
The best lid is a lid with no holes at all. But if you plan to drink through the lid, you will have to accept the possibility of leaks. Fortunately, most cups have reasonable lids for basic-use situations. Where it gets dicey is when you want to throw the cup in a backpack or purse. The above guideline for insulation also doubles for leaky lids. Friction-fit lids are going to be the least reliable, since they only need to be pulled at to be removed. Your best option will be a screw-on lid with rubber gaskets.
The mouth of the lid will also be important here, and again, this is where the Contigo (see above) does a great job. It has a “vacuum sealed” button valve that lets you drink from the top. Unfortunately, these can be difficult to clean. Other options (like the ceramic mug) will have a slide-mouth. This is going to be the worst option for leaking, since you are now introducing more moving, sliding parts that can easily open with an accidental bump. A nice compromise is the snap-on, flip-style opening. It will be both fairly secure and very easy to clean.
Like most things, your choice of cup will come down to what you value most. In this guide I’ve tried to direct you to the best, most cost-effective options available. There are a lot of other options that you can choose from, and those might be the correct choice for you. I encourage you to use this guide as, well, a guide, and predominately a tool for identifying what qualities to look for in a cup that suits you best.