TortsProf Blog

Editor: Christopher J. Robinette
Widener Commonwealth Law School

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Some Data Points On Coffee

Last week's guest post from Michael Rustad discussed (among other things) the infamous Liebeck v. McDonald's case, triggering a response from Ted Frank (in the comments) and an additional post from Rustad.

I start my Torts class with asking students what they think of when they think of "Torts."  Invariably, the Liebeck case comes up, along with some of the various understandings of the case that are out there.  One of the points of the discussion is both that case's centrality to many torts discussions, and the variety of "facts" that exist about it.

This year, I decided to ask students to use a food thermometer I have to compare the temperatures of coffee and other hot drinks as served in the Springfield area.  I have not calibrated the thermometer (a CDN home food thermometer, chosen, if memory serves, because of a recommendation in Cooks Illustrated), though it has in the past come up with temperatures very similar to those of other food thermometers in my house. Nor is this a blinded experiment or anything along those lines.  I mostly wanted to see what variety there might be in temperatures.

The instructions I gave:

1.  Purchase an ordinary coffee.  If you are getting anything other than coffee (i.e., tea, latte, etc.) note that in your post.

2.  Before adding cream or any other product, and as soon as possible after the beverage being handed to you, check the temperature of the drink.  To do so, turn on the thermometer ("On/Off" switch), wait for it to show the air temperature, and then put the metal probe into the drink (put it essentially all the way in, without the plastic part going into the drink).  Once the temperature listed stabilizes, note the temperature (in Fahrenheit).  Then clean off the thermometer probe thoroughly.  Do not immerse the plastic part of the thermometer.

3.  In this [TWEN] forum, post the location where you got the beverage, the date, the time, and the temperature.  Additionally, if the beverage is anything other than coffee, note that.

4.  Repeats are fine -- i.e., it is fine for multiple people to report the temperature of the Court Cafe's coffee.  (I know from personal experience that it varies fairly dramatically.)

5.  Home-brewed coffee is also fine.


The thermometer is still making its rounds through the class, but here's what we've seen so far:

  • I got coffee from the law school court cafe just before class today (approximately 1:00 pm).  It was the house blend from one of the insulated containers.  I don't know how long it had been in there.  The thermometer indicated that it was 167.9 degrees.
  • I just purchased today (9/3) a small coffee from the Dunkin Donuts across from campus at approx 9:15 am.  The temperature of this coffee was 174.3 degrees.  As I was driving to campus I was also testing this partiuclar drink and some did spill on my hand.  It was hot and it did hurt, but no burn was evident.

  • September 4 at 8:00 a.m:  Today I measured the temperature of my home brewed coffee. It was dunken donuts coffee made in an older model of a krups coffee pot. The coffee measured 160.3 F.  I observed this was optimal temperature because I was going to drink it immediately. However, if I put it down for a little while it cools would not be ideal temp if I was traveling with the coffee starting at this temp.
  • This morning, September 8th at 6:45am. I boiled water for tea using a stainless steel kettle on an electric stove. When the kettle whistled I poured the water over the tea and waited approximately 2 minutes before testing the water (tea bag still immersed). 171.6*F, I will not drink it probably for about 5-10 minutes though to allow it to cool down.
  • Wednesday, September 9th, 7:40am: I purchased Starbucks Coffee, Mild Blend out of one of the insulated thermoses in the [law school] cafe downstairs [a/k/a the Court Cafe]. The temperature read at 179.4 degrees.
  • September 9th, 3:30pm - I bought a coffee from a McDonalds on Allen Street in Springfield.  The temperature was 159.1 F.

  • September 11, 2009, 8:30 am...I bought a coffee at the main cafeteria in the Germain Campus center (The Rock Cafe Food Court)...It is advertised as "New England Coffee", I chose the Breakfast blend.  Last time I bought coffee there I burned my mouth on it, so I was interested to see how hot it was...It was 171.4...which I was kind of disappointed it wasn't higher...but I still think that this is too hot to serve in flimsy paper cups with no covers!

  • Saturday Sept. 12th: purchased regular coffee from Starbucks at the mall in Holyoke. 166.6F
  • On 9/20/09 at  4:30pm I purchased a coffee from Starbucks in Northampton, MA.  The temperature was 173.4 degrees.

Again, the thermometer has not been calibrated, but I believe from experience cooking with it that it is fairly accurate.  So far, the highest temperature has been just shy of 180, and the lowest has been just over 159 -- from a McDonald's.

More updates to come.  And if any other Torts professors are so inclined, perhaps we could build up a wider range of data on coffee temperatures.


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Hi Bill,

Our coffee, tested right after brewing, was 150 degrees this morning (non-calibrated thermometer).

Posted by: Chris Robinette | Sep 29, 2009 6:14:55 AM

NB that every single one of these temperatures (above 140 F) was deemed by Liebeck's expert and attorney to be "unreasonably dangerous."

Posted by: Ted Frank | Sep 29, 2009 2:11:37 PM

What a useless story. That's it: I'm cancelling my ATL subscription!

Posted by: Myron Canfeldt | Sep 29, 2009 2:48:12 PM

cf. 150 F3d 651 McMahon v. Bunn-O-Matic Corporation Lp

wherein Judge Easterbrook explains, at length, that coffee is better when it is brewed with *hot* water.

Posted by: Christian Lane | Sep 29, 2009 3:11:18 PM

Coffee brews at 195 degrees Fahrenheit. It should be served at 180-185 degrees. The aroma is best when it is fresh and hot.

Here is one website that lists temperatures.

A better question is why coffee used to be served in flimsy cups, but that problem has largely been fixed. Of course now a disposable coffee cup contains the material of like 5 normal cups, but whatever. I prefer that to burning my leg.

Cold coffee sucks.

Posted by: Tom B | Sep 29, 2009 8:24:01 PM

Read the McDonalds coffee case where the woman spills the coffee in her lap and is burned, then recovers millions. The case discusses why McDonalds serves coffee at particular temperatures. Basically, the point seems to be that bad tasting coffee isn't as noticeable when it's so hot you can't taste it anyway.

Posted by: Stacy | Sep 30, 2009 6:42:24 AM

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