Magazine

The Big Top Circus


The coffee lid business is booming. And it's getting weird

(Corrects misspelling of Solo Cup spokesperson's name in second paragraph.)

Another must-have soldier accessory must now be added to Camelback canteens: disposable French press coffee lids. "A lot of deployed servicemen were e-mailing me, 'We're trying to get a good cup of coffee off the hood of a Humvee,' " says Forrest Graves, a roaster in Cleveland, Ga. Graves knew just what to send them—the Xpress Lid. Made by SmartCup, the Xpress Lid incorporates a plastic strainer and plunger that transforms humdrum paper cups into disposable, single-use plunger pots. SmartCup sells to specialty shops and java enthusiasts for about 40 cents each. The lids are already making inroads in the Middle East. "We started shipping it to troops," Graves says.

We are living in the golden age of coffee lid design. The breakthrough lid, Solo Cup's Traveler model, made its debut in 1986 and is now part of the Museum of Modern Art's permanent design collection. "Traveler lids were a tough sell because they were slightly more expensive," says Solo spokeswoman Leslie Beyer. Then Starbucks (SBUX) picked it as their go-to lid, and the rest is history. The coffee lid market is valued at roughly $180 million, according to a recent study by Chicago research company Technomic. Last year 14 billion lids were sold in the U.S. alone.

Despite the prominence of the Traveler, designers keep coming up with more elaborate versions. New York-based architect Louise Harpman has what may be the largest collection of independently patented "drink-through plastic cup lids" in the U.S.—132 and counting. She recently acquired a lid that harnesses steam to warm chicken and biscuits placed on top of it. "That's where it's going," Harpman says: "Lid-cup stratification assemblies." Or something like that.

A Syracuse student has developed a "caddy" lid with slots for creamers and sugar. Another concept, Coollid, features a built-in reservoir which cools a mouthful of coffee by separating it from the rest of the chamber. One recently patented lid uses NASA-derived shape memory material, which unplugs the drinking hole when the coffee reaches a palatable temperature. Australian company Smart Lid Systems has designed a lid that changes color when coffee cools. Says Technomic's Joe Pawlak, "This is not something I saw 10 years ago."


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