My long road to mobile coffee cup enlightenment began with a ferry ride, a white shirt and a lousy O-ring seal. It was a beautiful spring morning, and I was heading over to the Toronto Island Airport for a flight with the Red Bull air race team. What could add to this perfect day? Coffee. And mounted in my Honda's cup holder was a brand-new travel mug, filled with fresh-brewed Colombian.
The cup had been an incredible bargain – only $7 at Wal-Mart. It looked good, with a stainless steel body and a lid that had the reassuring look of a submarine hatch, with cam-style latches and a thick rubber O-ring seal. Then I took my first sip – and the entire top came off, dumping hot coffee over my white shirt. So much for reassuring looks.
That was just one in a series of coffee cup malfunctions that launched my quest to find the perfect travel mug. I'm a lifelong gear head and former mechanic who researches equipment with fanatic thoroughness, but I'd never given much thought to coffee mugs.
The ferry disaster was my wake-up call. I realized that it was time to research cups with the same care that I apply to aircraft and scuba-diving gear. I decided to start by crowd-sourcing – I wrote a column about my coffee cup woes to see what you readers thought. That brought hundreds of messages and a long list of cup suggestions. I tried many of them, plus some others I found along the way. I ended up with a lot of mugs. Some were great. Some weren't.
As I learned, you can go wild with a travel mug. You can get fancy handles, a vacuum-sealed interior and trick drinking ports. You can even get a mug with a built-in screen basket that lets you brew loose-leaf tea. But I wanted to keep it simple. All I wanted was a serviceable, trustworthy coffee mug that fit in a cup holder. I was tired of leaks. I didn't want any more dodgy tops. How hard could it be?
After trying a lot of cups, I came to several conclusions:
- Screw-on tops are the most secure, but only if they have a properly-designed O-ring (the rubber seal that keeps liquid from leaking out).
- Double-wall construction gives the best insulation – coffee stays hot, and the cup is cool in your hand.
- Tops need to be foolproof. If a top can be improperly installed, it will be – and it will leak.
- Stainless steel holds up better than plastic.
On to the road test. I've tried out more than two dozen cups in the past months. Here's the rundown on six that illustrate the good and bad features I found:
Thermos Elements Mug
At $27.99, this had the look and feel of a BMW, with a stainless steel body, an ergonomic handle and a top that threaded in like the bung on an industrial cask. The Elements mug was well-insulated, and kept coffee hot for a long time. But the handle that impressed me so much at first glance turned out to be a curse, because it prevented the Elements from fitting into some car cup holders. And the threaded top wasn't foolproof. The ports that allowed coffee to flow out only work at one angle. When the top is threaded down tight, the cup is completely leak-proof. But to drink your coffee, the top must be unscrewed at least one turn – and if you go too far, you could be in for a major spill.
The Clearance Bin Special
I found this cup in a Loblaws clearance bin for $2.99. In the spirit of bargain-hunting, I bought it and took it on a road trip to Guelph and back. Using the Clearance Bin Special (CBS) reminded me of driving a Trabant, a smoke-belching East German car that I once included in a list of the
Eco2Go Travel Tumbler
I picked this one up at Wal-Mart for $7.99, and considered it the AK-47 of travel mugs. Like the Russian assault rifle, the Eco2Go got the job done with lethal efficiency and low cost, but it demanded skill. The top locks with a secure engagement system – you drop it into place, then turn it a few degrees to engage a set of locking teeth. If you do it right, the top compresses the Eco2Go's rubber O-ring seal perfectly, and the top locks itself into place. But if you're not mechanically inclined, it's easy to put the top on without actually engaging the locking teeth – this is the mobile cup equivalent of setting a bucket of water on top of a partially opened door. Except the bucket is filled with hot coffee, and you're in a moving car.
Starbucks Logo Tumbler
$19.95. This cup was the metal and plastic equivalent of a Bachelor show contestant – good-looking but flakey. My wife and I bought the cup on a trip, seduced by its stainless body and solid-looking top. It felt good in the hand, kept the coffee hot and fit in the cup holders of most cars. But the threaded top was prone to leaks (the O-ring didn't seat particularly well) and the drinking port was too small – your mouth covers the entire hole, leading to an air pressure imbalance between the cup's interior and the surrounding atmosphere. That imbalance turns the cup into a coffee-filled squirt gun – as air rushes in, a slug of hot liquid shoots out the drinking hole.
Thermos Vacuum Insulated Travel Mug
$27.99. As you'd expect from a company that specializes in insulated containers, this mug kept coffee hot for a long time. The top has a fancy lever mechanism that makes it utterly leak-proof when you flip it into the closed position, and you can drink from several angles when it's open. Overall, this was a good mug. My only complaint was the handle, which prevented the mug from fitting into many cup holders. (The mug is also available without a handle.)
$19.99. Several readers suggested this cup, and I quickly saw why they liked it so well. The Corona has a tapered shape that fits in any cup holder, and it's well insulated. The top is a sophisticated yet simple design that's completely leak proof – there's a solid-feeling lever that flips from the open to close position. (When I took it apart in my workshop I saw why it works so well – the lever has a ramped cam that pulls up a circular stopper.) The design allows you to drink at any angle, so you don't have to rotate the cup in your hand while you drive. After weeks of testing, this cup was my personal choice.
There were several good cups (and plenty of terrible ones). The Trudeau Corona was my favourite, and I kept it. The rest were given away (some with stern warnings). And the Wal-Mart mug that ruined my shirt? It went over the railing of the ferry to sleep with the fishes.
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Twitter: Peter Cheney@cheneydrive
Globe and Mail Road Rush archive: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-drive/car-life/cheney/