We’ve all got our own preferences when it comes to hot drinks. From builders tea to peppermint tea, gingerbread lattes to double espressos, the list of potential favourites is endless. But how much thought do you put into what you drink yours out of? Here we explore some of the most common containers for hot drinks and what makes them so popular.
The most obvious difference between the cup and the mug is size and shape. Tea and coffee cups tend to be smaller and shorter than mugs, which usually hold double the amount of liquid compared with cups – approximately 350ml.
While the use of mugs dates back millennia, teacups are a more recent introduction to Europe. As with tea itself, teacups first came to the UK from the Far East in the 17th century. In this part of the world, teacups do not have handles and the first teacups exported to Europe would have been handleless as well. They would remain so until 1707 when the teacup handle was invented by a German named Johann Friedrich Bottger.
Mugs, meanwhile, have always been endowed with handles and they remain much bigger than those on cups, which are conventionally smaller and are designed to be held between fingers. Mug handles are usually big enough to accommodate all fingers and therefore offer a sturdier grip.
In the West, the tea or coffee cup is usually reserved for more formal settings. While tearooms and coffee houses may make use of them, we are less likely to reach for them when serving ourselves. Indeed, teacups especially are associated with ceremony and occasion – typically belonging to a matching set, made of fine porcelain and delicately decorated.
Meanwhile, the practicality of mugs makes them the go-to choice for everyday use. Unless your guest or the occasion is particularly special, you’re unlikely to be reaching for the matching cup and saucer. When at work or making that first bleary-eyed morning cuppa, you’ll almost definitely be pulling a mug out of the cupboard.
Cup or mug, the material used will almost definitely be ceramic. In broad terms, ceramic is clay hardened by heat. But not all ceramics are born equal. China and porcelain are made out of clay with a constituency of finer particles, leading to a thinner, more translucent finish. As these require higher temperatures to fire, they are often expensive and are favoured for higher-end teacups. China, in particular, is highly coveted in this regard. Due to their cost, finer ceramics tend not to be used for everyday drinking: far more common are cheaper ceramics that fire at lower temperatures – certainly the case for the vast majority of mugs.
The reason ceramic is such a popular material for hot drinks is its low conduction rate: because it takes a long time to heat up, the liquid inside stays hotter for longer. Despite its inherent suitability for hot beverages, ceramics are by no means the only material used to house hot beverages.
If you visit coffee shops, especially those on the trendier side, you may have noticed an increasing tendency to serve hot drinks in glass cups and mugs. While there is an environmental argument for using glass – it being more recyclable than ceramic – the main benefit of glass is probably aesthetic.
However, while your latte may look pretty in an elegant glass cup, you might have to drink it quicker. Glass conducts heat faster than ceramic, which means hot drinks cool down faster. In short, glass may look stylish, but it is unlikely it will be replacing ceramic as the material of choice for drinking vessels. For the foreseeable future, mugs made of affordable ceramic look set to remain the firm favourite.
The ceramic mug may be our go-to when we’re sat at a desk or curled up on the sofa, but we don’t just want hot drinks when we’re sitting still. Whether its a morning espresso for the daily commute or a herbal tea to accompany a stroll through the park, in our increasingly bustling, commutable world, more and more hot drinks are drunk on the go. And when it comes to containers, transportable hot drinks have an entirely different set of demands.
The disposable cup was originally invented in 1907 to stop the spread of germs that arose from sharing cups. A poor insulator, paper has a tendency to get very hot. But, with the invention of the paper handle in 1933, it wasn’t long before the paper cup was being utilised for hot drinks too.
In the 1960s the styrofoam cup emerged, a lid was added and disposable coffee cups became mainstream. However, over the next couple of decades, environmental concerns about the use of foam drove a return to the paper cup. In 1991 Jay Sorenson invented the cardboard sleeve to offer extra insulation, avoiding the need for paper handles.
Billions of disposable paper coffee cups are still used every day across the world. In the UK alone, seven million disposable coffee cups are used per day, adding up to 2.5 billion a year. While they are more eco-friendly than styrofoam, unfortunately only one in every 400 cups ends up being recycled. This is because modern disposable cups are not just paper: to be watertight they are lined with a thin layer of plastic, which makes them difficult to recycle.
Growing concern over the impact of disposables on our planet has resulted in a growing demand for reusable transportable cups. These can be made out of a variety of materials, including recyclable plastics, silicone, glass and bamboo, and they are available in a range of different sizes and styles. The reusable nature of these materials doesn’t just benefit the planet: they also make for a less flimsy and more insulated cup than their paper cousins, making them sturdier and easier to hold. Many coffee shops also offer a discount for people using a reusable cup, so with enough hot drinks, you might even see a return on your initial investment!
In 2017, UK retailers reported a dramatic increase in sales of reusable cups and a decline in the use of the single-use drinking vessel. So while the majority of transportable hot drinks are still served in disposable cups, there are signs that this is changing. The future may yet see reusable cups become our new favourite method of drinking on the go.