The words "hot" and "coffee" are as closely linked in our animal brains as two words can be. Closer, perhaps, than "pepperoni" and "pizza", closer even than "rooty" and "tooty". That said, are we making a terrible daily mistake when we serve our coffee steaming hot? We like our coffee hot, but how hot? And as coffee enthusiasts ask themselves with each and every cup: are we doing it wrong?
Though coffee's best brewed at just under boiling temperatures, in about a temperature range from 195 to 205°F, drinking that hot it is another story completely. Beyond the obvious risk factors of burning your tongue or the inside of your mouth, you're simply not getting as much flavor out of your coffee if you reach for the cup too quickly.
That said, you may have your reasons for drinking it hotter. And that is the quality of the coffee you've started off with in the first place.
"Worse coffee is better hot," says Charles Babinski of Los Angeles-based cafe Glanville & Babinski. (Though Babinski acknowledges the tactile enjoyment of hot coffee in a cold place, his temperate California environs allow him to let the coffee chill, man.) Babinski recommends letting coffee cool to a temperature of around 120°F, or even lower. His cafe serves coffee on the cooler side, along with carafes to allow customers to pour drinks out themselves and more easily attenuate their own coffee temperature preference via cooling-as-it-pours.
Coffee pros have long since argued in favor of allowing coffee to cool off to allow a great many more flavors to open up—and on professional cupping tables, coffee is indeed allowed to cool for a very long time, with flavors being compared and contrasted at increasingly cooler temperatures. In some cases, expanding to a much broader range of tastes. Babinski makes an even firmer argument against heat. "There is no need for heat except to mask flavors," he says.
James Hoffmann, a World Barista Champion and co-director of London, England's Square Mile Coffee Roasters, agrees that the better the coffee, the cooler it should be consumed.
"While body temperature may be the ideal, I really like things just a little hotter," says Hoffmann, who also prefers a temperature somewhere between 110 to 120°F. "It's a temperature I'd describe as pleasingly warm," says Hoffmann, adding one caveat. "There is an exception to this: If the coffee isn't going to be any good. I'll drink this as hot as I can bear, so I can gain the enlivening benefits of coffee with as little of the pain of poorly brewed, poorly roasted or poor quality coffee."
Does the same hold true for espresso beverages as for filter, or drip, coffees, though?
"I think the only downside of letting milk drinks cool is that they can turn a little ugly and bubbly," says Hoffmann, who it's safe to assume is only served the absolutely most beautiful latte art at all times. "I would say it is worth the aesthetic sacrifice in terms of return in enjoyment of its flavor," he says, adding that "the story of espresso's rapid demise is also overblown."
A well-made espresso can remain tasty as it cools, assures the former world champion. Though this may not extend to carrying it all the way back to your office in a miniature paper cup.
So, an experiment for you: brew your regular morning coffee and drink it just as you normally do, first taking note of the temperature, and think about what it tastes like to you. The next cup you make, allow it to cool to a temperature of around 115°F—and again consider the flavors. Are you getting all of the messages your coffee has been trying to send you? And if your coffee was really that bad, or worse, to begin with—well, hell. Throw it back in the microwave.
About the author: Liz Clayton drinks, photographs and writes about coffee and tea all over the world, though she pretends to live in Brooklyn, New York. She is currently compiling photographs of the best coffee in the world to be published by Presspop in 2013.