It can seem like the words “coffee cup” and “coffee mug” are used interchangeably. You might feel as if they aren’t interchangeable but can’t seem to put your finger on why.
Coffee mugs differ from coffee cups in that they are (generally) taller than the width of their brim’s diameter. Coffee cups, on the other hand, are often wider than they are tall; they also have smaller handles.
The terms “coffee mug” and “coffee cup” thus describe different (though similar) objects. They are also distinct in their uses. While noting the ways they differ can help you be more familiar with coffee customs and the semantics of the English language, there is a debate as to how much you should concern yourself with these distinctions as you will be easily understood regardless of which term you use.
Structural Differences: Coffee Mug vs. Coffee Cup
As mentioned above, there are a few key distinctions between coffee mugs and coffee cups. This principle is true when applied to traditionally structured ceramic cups and mugs or more new-age styled products. Here is a more inclusive list of the differences between coffee mugs and coffee cups:
- Coffee cups narrow at the base and widen at the brim
- Coffee mugs are taller and often have straight (or nearly straight) sides
- Coffee mug handles will fit all of your fingers; cups will not
- “Coffee mug” does not often describe a to-go coffee container
Base, Sides, Brim
The easiest way to tell a cup from a mug is also a bit subjective. As a general rule, the brim of a coffee mug will not have a diameter that is bigger than the length of a side. In other words, if you have two of the same mugs and put on its side, it will be shorter than the one that you left standing.
Coffee mugs, on the other hand, are typically wider at the top than they are tall (so your mug on its side would be taller).
It is not just the brims of the coffee mugs and cups that differ; their bases are distinct as well. A coffee mug will typically have a base that is roughly the same size as its brim. Some mugs have bases and brims that differ, but they will generally not be more than an inch (2.5cm) difference in total.
Coffee cups have bases that are significantly smaller than their brims. They are characterized by the short sloped/arched sides that this difference in their top and bottom circumferences creates. In this way, coffee cups often look like bowls with handles.
Coffee mugs sometimes have bases that resemble a little pedestal for the cup itself. While both will often have a little ridge at the bottom, if you see a visible design element that lifts the cup off of the table, you are most likely looking at a coffee cup, not a mug.
New-age coffee cups and mugs make it hard for handles to be the sole distinguishing factor between the two. There are simply so many ways to design a mug or cup handle that making a clear characterization of them can be difficult. In general, however, you will be able to fit your index, middle, ring, and pinky fingers into the space between a mug and its handle but will not be able to do so with coffee cups.
Instead of sliding your hand into the gap between the mug and the handle, you usually lift a cup with a few fingers or by gently pinching the handle with your thumb and fingers.
So, there are small technical differences between coffee mugs and coffee cups. It can be helpful to learn these differences as coffee mugs, and coffee cups typically serve different purposes if you are following traditional coffee culture. Of course, they both carry coffee, but what coffee drinks they often hold differs.
To-go Coffee Cups
There are exceptions, but people tend to say “coffee cup” for anything reusable. It doesn’t matter how tall or wide the cup is, most reusable coffee containers are coffee cups. The only exception to this rule is that if the item in question clearly resembles a mug in every other way, it is a coffee mug.
As a result of this rule of thumb, you should be able to confidently call most any to-go coffee container a coffee cup. All paper products that you might drink coffee from, for example, are considered coffee cups.
Uses: Coffee Mug vs. Coffee Cup
You can use coffee mugs and coffee cups interchangeably if you would like. There are no coffee police to come in and correct your cup or mug usage. There are, however, loosely established customs that you can follow to get the most out of your coffee. The shapes of coffee mugs and coffee cups also provide different advantages.
You will traditionally serve espresso-based drinks in coffee cups. This is because coffee cups, like espresso-based drinks, are typically smaller than drip/press coffee drinks. Since espresso is so small and concentrated, you do not need a large mug to carry the whole drink. Coffee shops will serve you the following drinks in a coffee cup:
- Con Panna
There is a near-endless number of espresso-based drinks (and a select few aren’t served in cups because they have so many added ingredients or require a large number of other ingredients. You can read about them and see a handy graphic on the topic here.
While coffee cups tend to carry drinks with an espresso base, coffee mugs are best for carrying coffee-based drinks. Anything that requires drip or press coffee should go in a coffee mug. They have more space to accommodate larger servings of coffee (which will give you the same amount of caffeine as you will find in smaller espresso-based drinks that fit in coffee cups.
Advantages to Mugs and Cups
The wide brim of a coffee cup gives it a greater surface area. This can help you get a better aroma off of the drink, make the drink cool down faster, and provide more space for coffee art. If these are any of your primary concerns, a coffee cup is a good option for you.
Coffee mugs, however, have their own advantages. Your coffee will stay warm longer because of the reduced surface area. If you wrap your hands around a coffee mug, you will also get the benefit of warming your hands and keeping your coffee just a little bit hotter.
Coffee Mug vs. Coffee Cup: Does It Matter
So, there are some differences between coffee mugs and coffee cups. Unless you need to serve coffee properly, you will likely be just fine without mastering the distinctions.
There is a popular linguistic argument that if the words or grammar you use do not change or cloud the meaning of what you want to say, then whatever you were debating is fine. There are few instances in which flipping “coffee cup” and “coffee mug” would confuse your audience or make your statement unintentionally ambiguous.
Thus, in speech, there is little cause to stress the differences between coffee cups and coffee mugs. They do, however, have differing traditional uses in coffee culture, and each offers unique advantages, so in usage, you might find some benefit to distinguishing between the two.