The Curious History of the Coffee Lid

Coffee. The aroma, the warmth, the latte art that adorns the top. The joy of receiving such a cup of finery is nearly unmatched. Naturally, the first thing you do? Put a lid on it and cover all that loveliness right up.

The caffeinated equivalent of tasting the finest wine with your nose plugged, it’s taken nearly a century to get to the point where lid makers are finally getting more creative, technical and, most importantly, they probably noticed the difference between coffee with a lid on, and lid off. Roaming the world in search of the best cups of coffee involves dealing with a lot of lids (or, in the case of Italy, a severe lack of lids because, you know, why are you walking around with coffee instead of sitting and enjoying?).

The very idea of a portable cup came about around the time of the Civil War, when sharing everything was fairly common. Unfortunately, after the U.S. lost a third of its population to the influenza, people started to realize that maybe sharing cups wasn’t the best plan. And thus, the disposable cup was born (Dixie cups! So patriotic).

40 years ago, the difference between lidded and unlidded was minimal. There was a lot of bad coffee out there after World War II. Enter the styrofoam cup, fast food coffee, and plastic lids of the 1960s.  Putting a cover on a now portable coffee to take it with you on your way to whatever it was you needed caffeinating for suited the mainstream coffee industry just fine. With burnt beans and overly oily roasts, who really wanted to “full flavor” anyways?

However, with the exponential rise of Third Wave Coffee, coffee connoisseurs are getting more discerning, and not settling for low quality lids diminishing the $6 cup of Ethiopian Harar espresso. 

Delving deep into the design history is Louise Harpman and architect Scott Specht, who just put out the book Coffee Lids: Peel, Pinch, Pucker, Puncture, photographically illustrating just how far we’ve come with portable coffee.

Some of you may have actually invented a lid prototype yourselves back in the day. If you remember, not that long ago, to-go cups…had no way to drink from them. So, what did anyone who wanted to prevent spilling but still enjoy a beverage do? Poked a hole in it. Fortunately, we’ve advanced since then. From MINT came an aromatized lid (let off a subtle vanilla or hazelnut scent when steam touched it), to the lid that lets you know the temperature of your coffee to avoid burns – the Smart Lid.

The good news for coffee and hot beverage lovers everywhere is that we are in a period known as a design bubble. A time when there is rapid transformation and new developments for previously unremarkable objects (like the lid).

Seattle-born and unleashed into the world! Coffee Bar in Redding, CA uses the Viora lid.

Two such designers (and coffee lovers) are Viora and Ruumi were at the Specialty Coffee Association Expo in Seattle in April, and we had a moment to chat with them about the future of the lids industry.

The Viora lid, which you may have seen at a Café Ladro or other specialty coffee shops that have flavor as a priority, is a departure from the “put it up to your lips, suck, and hope you don’t get burned” approach of other lips. Instead, it mimics the drinking experience of a mug; the liquid goes where you want it to, no sucking required. The lid allows for airflow, which in turn allows for the aroma of the coffee to reach your nose, increasing the overall taste and sensation of the beverage.

Ruumi is another incredible improvement in the lid world. For starters, without using anymore material (they have developed a way to stretch the existing material), they’ve created a lid with room for the nose. This revolutionary idea means no more tipping your head back or bumping your nose against the lid.

The Ruumi lid features a more natural form to avoid spills and neck strain and is recyclable.

Instead, this lid makes the drinker able to keep their head level, while getting the very last drop from their cup. With its unique design, this lid also magically cuts splashing in half, virtually eliminating the need for a stopper. If you’ve ever thought about how annoying lids are, you owe it to yourself to check out a Ruumi lid. Truly mind blowing.

Looking for Third Wave Coffee that cares about their lids, check out Café Ladro and Caffé Vita, Intelligentsia, as well as Street Bean and many others in the Seattle area.
Obsessed with the history of lids and want to know more? Get the book here! For even more background on the beginnings of how we arrived at what we drink from now, see Bon Appetit’s in-depth story.


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