Tech Life The creative posse

The Coffee Mug Affair

At my favorite local coffee shop, Lorraine gives me shit when I purchase coffee in a paper cup, “You… are not saving the world.”

She’s right. I’m not, and it’s actually worse. Each time I reach for a sip and this sad little corpse of tree flesh greets me with its pathetic weight and palpable sense of Al Gore guilt, I’m lonely.

I’m missing a key member of my creative posse.

A Box Full of Fail

The next chapter in documenting the accessorizing of my obsessions was an investigative report on paper. I’ve got 27 links regarding the history of paper queued up and ready to be read, but I don’t honestly care a lot about paper. I can’t separate the notebook from the paper.

In fact, I’m pissed at paper. Forget about the environmental guilt, cups made of paper are a sure fire way to ruin any cup of coffee because they change the taste. Coffee mugs are the only way to go and I’ve spent a lot more time fretting about mugs than paper. That’s the other thing Lorraine doesn’t know: I’ve got a box full of failed coffee mugs.

Unlike prior excursions, with coffee mugs, we can brief. There is no need for comparison tables. There are just two use cases that define a great coffee mug: Driving and Writing.


The Driving case is tactical. How do I move from point A to point B without spilling scalding liquid over me and the car? Technology has provided a bevy of James Bondian metal travel mugs guaranteed to safely transport a hot beverage, but this technology comes with a cost. After three uses, like paper, your coffee tastes like whatever material your mug is made of.

This means I’m paying two bucks for the privilege of not being scalded by a cup of coffee that tastes like old aluminum.


Plastic, while less hip, suffers from the same taste degradation over time. Glass-lined or not, three uses and the taste of old coffee and angry plastic permeates every sip. This conveniently leads us to the first key construction point for the perfect mug:

It must be made of ceramic. After years of foul tasting cups of coffee, I’ve discovered a ceramic travel mug, while a hazard if dropped, is the only material that doesn’t affect the taste of the coffee. Combine this with the cleverly designed removable plastic top and you have the Pottery Barn travel mug:

Pottery Barn Travel Mug

Will it last? I don’t know. Can it survive a drop? Probably not. Will I lose the top? Probably. Does it deliver my coffee as intended? Yes. I have six.


The Writing use case is strategic because it’s an essential part of my writing process. Right this second, I’m editing this article and, as you might expect, there is a process. First, I sit up. Writing is serious business for which your spine must be straight. I also lean my head slightly downward, looking up at my words as I write. Occasionally I mumble what I’m typing… no clue why.

And then I stop and I take a sip of something from a ginormous coffee cup… which is when I really start writing. The sip of coffee is a pause with weight. As I described in I Don’t Multitask, these moments of silence are invaluable. They are when I step out of what I’m doing to consider what I’m going to do, and for this brief journey I need a companion, and that’s my coffee mug.

To understand this relationship, you have to consider the sip. It’s a conversation and that conversation has two elements:

It must begin with character. The appearance of the coffee cup needs to speak.

A black cup of coffee

A black cup of coffee

It must continue with weight. A full coffee cup is a two-handed affair. The coffee must be blistering hot and a threat sitting three inches to the left of my keyboard. Reaching for my mug is a commitment. It is a reminder that, “Hey, we’re focusing elsewhere for moment. Don’t screw this up. I’m hot.” My coffee mugs are ginormous. My sips — carefully orchestrated.

It’s a brief conversation and it has only one goal: a creative elsewhere.

The Posse

I’m only addressing half of this situation. There’s a coffee bean article to be written, but it’s time to get back to management and design, so I’ll cut to the chase: whole bean + grind at home + French press = FTW.

A great cup of coffee is not just a gorgeous caffeine administration vehicle; it’s part of your creative posse. On my desk, all within a 12 inches my hands, I have the iPhone, the Zebra Sarasa gel pen, a sweetly decaying Field Notes, and the Life is Short coffee mug. None of these items are required for me to write — they are conveniences — but they are essential to accessorizing a moment of creative, companionable silence.

38 Responses

  1. I often wonder how long it will be before fast food restaurants with self-serve fountain soda will let you bring in your own drinking vessel. It sounds like the sort of thing In n Out would be out front on.

    My go-to mug was sent to me unsolicited by Speakeasy several years ago. It is a ceramic mug, very capacious but also very high on the sides to prevent sloshing accidents. If it ever broke, I would have to take my chances with drinking hot crazy glue residue because I will try to stick it back together.

  2. Paper waste is so not the problem, on either the production or the disposal side. Grows from the ground, decomposes quickly. Disposable cups aren’t made from old-growth forest.

    Which is not to say that it’s not a good thing to use permanent cups and such and to generally try to reduce your waste stream, but as a matter of prioritization, it’s good to remember that plastic is the enemy.

  3. Nodding my head in violent agreement, then I reached the part about using a 2 handed cup. I may have to implement this cave-worthy idea.

    Still, I think I also need a 1 handed cup to absent-mindedly caffeine up at the start of the day. I wonder if the context switch to a giant mug will somehow trigger “the zone”.

  4. Was there a deliberate change in writing style for this post, or am I dreaming? This isn’t a complaint of any kind (what right would I have to make one in any case?), more a musing…

  5. Agree on the need for ceramic. Starbucks has (used to have?) a ceramic travel mug with a plastic top. What made it special (to me anyway) was that the bottom is bigger than the top which makes it spill-resistant. There is also some non-skid foam on the bottom to help hold it in place when not in a cup holder. I’ve gone through 3 of them (they don’t help you to remember where you leave them…)

  6. brysmi 16 years ago


  7. brysmi 16 years ago

    Saving the planet? Depends

    I mostly agree that “plastic is the enemy”, regardless …

  8. I am curious as to why this article was written as if travel mugs didn’t come in stainless steel.

    Indeed, I’d be hard-pressed to find one made of aluminum.

    For my part, a steel mug is what I use at work, because I’m a dexterity disaster. At home, I’ve got a gorgeous Tim Horton’s mug (don’t laugh!) that is heavy and voluminous. My wife steals it to drink tea out of, and when I asked her why, she said it had a “good handle.” Can’t argue with that.

    BTW, we need a reference object for scale in those mug photos. I can’t tell if these are French-sized bowl mugs or teacup-sized pottery projects.

  9. There is a secret to using metal coffee mugs and not having your coffee taste like metal. Never wash them.

    You can lightly rinse if you want, but you need a patina of dried coffee between the metal and drink.

    If you take this approach, you cannot leave old coffee standing in it. You have to finish it up or dump it out within an hour or so; if you get a bit of mold, you have to scrub the thing out and start over. This approach also works for old fashioned metal coffee pots.

    There is an historical book whose name I forgot, an autobiography of a bride who moved to a ranch in West Texas in the 1890s. Her husband had a tiny one room house, with a wood stove, metal coffee pot, and bare wooden walks covered black charcoal marks. Soon after she arrived, she took advantage of the men being gone one day to scrub the pot with sand until it was shiny and clean the walls. When her husband returned he was furious that she had destroyed a decades worth of ranching records off the walls, and complained that the coffee tasted horrible for a year.

    I wish I could remember the name and author of that book.

  10. I’ve tried stainless steel, as well. Same awful musty taste coming out of the mug after a few uses.

  11. Candyce Young-Fields 16 years ago

    A good coffee mug is hard to find. However, what about the handle factor?

    Ryan briefly mentioned his wife liked his Horton’s mug had a “good handle”. The handle, no matter if you’re a 2-handed or 1-handed coffee drinker (especially so if you’re the latter) is probably the most important factor besides volume for me. I like to be able to fit 2 or 3 fingers comfortably in the handle without feeling like it’s too unwieldy with 2 or too squished with 3.

    I’m really glad you mentioned the fact that no matter what kind of metal a travel mug is made out of, it still tastes bad after a few uses. Ceramic is definitely the way to go. Now, if only they could make ceramic extremely durable.

  12. I’m actually struggling with this right now, as I prepare to drive from San Francisco to the east coast in a few weeks.

    Ceramic travel mug or plastic/metal thing, but with integrated french press?

    I’m leaning towards the french press mug, because it doesn’t leave me at the mercy of whatever swill I randomly encounter on the road. It also tickles the convergence funny-bone and makes me wonder why none of my other devices have this level of integration. My iPhone looks a lot less nifty now, that’s for sure.

  13. @ED:

    I agree, this is a good post but seems rather more… disjointed than usual.

  14. @Travis: I found the french press travel cups (I have one from Peet’s) to be a great way to make a mediocre cup of coffee. It’s like drinking directly from the french press and I think it tastes horrible. That may have to do with the plastic, not sure.

    I prefer small ceramic mugs because you get a consistently hotter cup of coffee (or tea). If the mug is too big by the time you get to the bottom the coffee is cold. Boo on that.

  15. Another big minus against plastic coffee cups (and plastic containers of any kind, really) is that after more than one use, many kinds of plastic actually begin to leech harmful chemicals into the liquids they contain. This is doubly bad when they’re holding hot liquids like coffee or tea.

  16. I threw out the aluminum lined travel mugs. I threw out the plastic lined travel mugs. I don’t drink from paper. Every morning, the French press ( Bodum ) produces a fine cup of Ethiopian Harrar for my enjoyment in a transparent glass mug. Aaahh!!

    I’ll have to ask the local coffee houses if I can bring in my own mug.

  17. So, exactly which coffee mug do you use? Or is there a range which you choose from depending on your mood?

  18. sungo 16 years ago

    @Bob: this is holy grail for me. I recently began the search for a new beaker shaped coffee cup. Given the amount of equipment on my desk, I need something more spill-resistant. Local searches have been fruitless, even in the realm of the horrible gross tasting aluminum mugs. The quest continues…

  19. @ j.jacques I have to agree with you here..It’s really harmful to use plastic especially when your drink is too hot. Too harmful to our health and the environment. Let’s just use just tastes better. I’m using the JavaJug by Feltman Langer (can’t find a link to it), it’s a no spill ceramic mug and it looks like part of a spaceship..I have yet to post it in my blog but I’ll be posting it soon

  20. I’m wondering if there is a market for Yttria-stabilized zirconia (transformation-toughened zirconia) coffee mugs that would outperform classic stoneware mugs that are prone to crack propagation.

  21. I would absolutely drink out of a zirconia skull.

  22. @Travis, @RYAN IRELAN: If you guys want small French presses, but don’t want it integrated into the cup, you may want to check out this Bodum unit:

    Here’s a demo on it:

    Haven’t used it myself.

  23. You obviously like big mugs. But what about the thickness of the lip (I prefer thin), a low’n’wide or high’n’narrow profile (i’m moving towards low and wide – less accident prone). And I suppose the overall balance of the thing, how it feels in your hand, which is a combo of all of these.

    Also sometimes its nice to hold the mug with thumb in the handle and hand wrapped round, does it feel comfy?

    And does it have a design and colour that is inspiring to look at all day long.

    Currently on a cute, pink, japanese-style mug:


  24. What is your solution for keeping the coffee hot during your process? One of those desktop electric coffee warmers? Someone needs to make a mug that holds heat from a microwave or something and keeps coffee hot for 30 minutes at least.

  25. CrapFlinger 16 years ago

    I’ve got a stainless steel travel mug (even has a carabiner style belt clip built into the handle for camping) if you’ve got a stainless steel mug that’s transferring a metallic taste to your coffee…then it’s A) not really stainless or B)so low on the “stainless scale” that it shouldn’t be legal to call it stainless…if you get a mug of the proper grade steel then you’re golden

    i’ve also got (at the house not at the work) my grandpa’s old pyrex coffee mug from way back in the 40’s or 50’s or something…weird designs an things on it…but it’s pyrex so i could pretty much launch it from a rocket launcher before it would break

    i do like the zirconia coffe mug idea though…or find a way to make a synthetic diamond (not zirconia but real diamond grown in a lab) mug….just grow it in the right shape

  26. French press?

    Went to Italy six years ago and wondered what the house was cooking every morning. Duly picked up one of these:

    Used it ever since. You want black fucking coffee? This stuff takes serious beating. Especially with a larger maker!

  27. Alas, I do not drink coffee, but rather tea. That said, I have the same sort of rules for my tea drinking. Nothing like a delicious mug of tea. Nothing added.

  28. Sebastian 16 years ago

    Ooh, this is promising. I actually wrote about a “coffee problem” I have just a month ago (, concerning a funky texture of the liquid which only happens in certain situations. Maybe you have an opinion for that. As for mugs, I prefer ceramic. And I can’t fathom how a certain coffee chain in Germany uses “wooden” throw-away sticks for spoons, as they give so much distaste to the coffee in so short a time, they are basically useless unless you like your coffee to taste like wood.

  29. this is great!

    I have to also confess that out of all our mugs at home- I have some I ONLY drink coffee in, and others I ONLY drink tea in- based purely on their look and feel. For instance- I don’t like tea in a mug that is black or dark inside.

    My current work mug is a 70s beige/yellowish coloured mug that has ‘Lotus Notes’ on the outside- couldn’t resist it in a local opshop as that’s our email client at work


  30. Speaking of coffee, or rather speaking of the pens you mention briefly at the end of your article: have you tried Staedtler gel pens? I’ve heard good things, though I’m still a Pilot Precise v5 man, myself.

  31. A. Peon 16 years ago

    Seriously girly taste in coffee mugs.

    But… oh hell, if we’re back to pens again: As one of the original Jimnie/Sarasa fans, I found two more affordable substitutes:

    “Universal” brand 39312 (“Gel RT”): Extremely affordable, very similar to the Zebra cartridge with deeply pigmented fast-drying ink. Also, decent industrial design and, though retractable, the button doesn’t rattle.

    Zebra Z-Grip ballpoint: Better fit-and-finish but clunkier to hold than the Universals. The trick here is that Zebra’s regular ballpoints are all extremely smooth and gel-like.

    I’ve run across some ludicrously smooth Bics lately too, but those seem to be given out by hotel chains and I don’t know how to identify the specifically awesome ones over the counter.

    On reuse: I also tried two relatively expensive Pentel Gels (the Hybrid as featured and.. some other one), in search of something both comfortable and refillable, and both kind of sucked. Why are all the best pens sold without refills in the US?

  32. Brian 16 years ago

    What about a stainless steel vacum style mug that is lined on the inside with a ceramic coating? You get a mug that’s less prone to break and coffee that stays hot and has no metallic tase. What’s not to like?

  33. That travel mug looks all very well except there’s no way it would fit into any cup holder in my car – the handle would get in the way. Unless it’s actually a foot tall and the bottom fits into a cup holder 😉

    One thing that bothers me is plastic stirrers when you get a take-away coffee. I’ve heard from a couple of sources that the coffee is definitely hot enough to release nasties from the plastic. A little wooden stick is better; the barista stirring in your coffee is best – after all they generally use a metal spoon and don’t use the little paper packets of sugar. The only downside is they often use that useless white sugar instead of raw sugar.

    We coffee fiends are a picky bunch aren’t we? 🙂

  34. The Aeropress is the only plastic that should ever touch your coffee.

    for some remarkable reading, check out the reviews at amazon for this thing.

  35. Servus!

    I have been using a mug made by my ex-wife’s brother for years in the office. I tend to call it “The Mug of Peace” because everyone else in my building uses the supplied mugs and they invariably ask about my cup of coffee. I have stopped meetings dead in their tracks with my mug. Always a friendly conversation piece!

    As for using paper cups – I lug around so much stuff with me on a daily basis that when I do stoop to getting coffee from a Starsucks or one if it’s ilk, the paper cup is the only viable solution should I not have time to sit down and drink.



  36. phipunk 16 years ago

    My personal favorite is this ceramic mug:

  37. The funky taste after a few uses is rancid coffee oils. See this site

    sorry it is a commercial site, but their carafe cleaning tablets stripped a years worth of coffee oils off my stainless thermal carafe, leaving some of the best tasting coffee I’ve had in more than a year.

    Ceramic mug for home for best flavor and cooling to fast consumption temperature, with a loon on it because, well, I am, and proud of it. For away from home, Nissan 0.5L stainless thermos with a flip-top drink through lid. Put the coffee in at 8 am, still hot at 2 pm when the post-lunch pass-out hits. Fits in a backpack next to the books. Survives multiple drops on the floor.

  38. I picked up the ceramic “I Am Not a Paper Cup” a few weeks ago for use around the office, and I have been loving it.