I Drank a Cup of Hot Coffee That Was Overnighted Across the Country

How a single PR stunt reveals the complicated, pervasive intersection of logistics and culture
A barista at Ritual Roasters in San Francisco pours hot coffee into Thermoses about to be shipped around the country. (Courtesy Thermos)

Last week, Thermos overnighted me a cup of hot coffee from Minneapolis to Washington, D.C., to see if it could. It was a bald-faced PR stunt. It succeeded in both senses: The coffee was still hot by the time it reached me, and I am writing about it now.

Now you’ve been warned: This is an article about a PR stunt. It was, however, an extraordinary PR stunt—well-executed, conceptually simple, and bubbling with zeitgeist. And I accepted the hot coffee for reasons beyond my love of roasted arabica.

The stunt was ostensibly to promote Thermos’ vacuum-insulated 40-ounce Stainless King beverage bottle. The company claims the Stainless King can keep hot things hot and cold things cold for 24 hours, and indeed my own experience with this monarch of thermoses bore that out.

The stunt’s part of a larger contest (and context). In May, Thermos shipped 25 of its Facebook fans in the contiguous U.S. free coffee overnight from Ritual Coffee in San Francisco. This month, the second time it ran the contest, it chose a more midwestern provider: Spyhouse Coffee in Minneapolis.

Courtney Fehrenbacher, a marketing manager at Thermos, told me that the company hopes to re-run the contest every other month, at least until the end of the year. Altogether, Spyhouse will hand 35 of its steaming envoys over to FedEx to be distributed across the country.

But, dare I say, the stunt was about even more than Thermos, Spyhouse, the Stainless King, or the Iron Throne. It was about logistics.

***

The box, as it arrived in D.C. (Robinson Meyer/The Atlantic)

As best as I can assemble it, here is the trajectory of the Stainless King and its erstwhile contents.

The coffee inside the Stainless King was Spyhouse’s Las Nubes roast: a coffee variety indigenous to Kenya and grown in El Salvador. The varietal was brought to El Salvador in the early 20th century when that country’s economy rested on its coffee production. This bean was grown on a similarly old farm, high-altitude land owned by the same family since the 1920s. (Or, at least, that’s the story Spyhouse tells.)

This bean, though. It was harvested sometime last winter before it entered its customary months of rest. Afterward, it was shipped to Spyhouse, which roasted the beans on July 21, 2014. It became the shop’s Las Nubes lot.

I presume it roasted those beans in the morning, because by the afternoon it was brewing the coffee. Around 4 p.m., the team got out their 10 Stainless Kings (designated for me and fellow members of the media) and filled them with Las Nubes, which they dripped. Then they put them in Thermos’s special packages—augmented with a bag of freshly roasted Las Nubes—and drove the boxes “about a quarter mile away” to the local FedEx facility.

According to a FedEx spokeswoman, the package was placed in a modified McDonnell Douglas DC-10, called an MD-10*. That plane’s a couple decades old, at least—McDonnell stopped making them in 1989—and FedEx owns more than anyone else. FedEx indisputably owns the largest private cargo fleet in the world, and, according to the trade journal Supply Chain, the fourth-largest aircraft fleet, period.

Someone at Spyhouse knew how to pack a box. (Robinson Meyer / The Atlantic)

Perhaps the package was stopped and exchanged in one of FedEx’s global or national hubs, in Memphis, or Indianapolis. Eventually, though, it arrived in D.C. in the wee hours of the July 22. Unloaded from the plane, sorted, loaded onto a truck, and carried to The Atlantic’s office/cement island-fortress, the Watergate, it reached its destination at 7:21 a.m. The coffee had been roasted less than 24 hours before.

Of course, the coffee wouldn’t reach its final destination—my belly—for another hour or so. I got to work during the eight o’clock hour, hoping to intercept the Stainless King, and discovered Santa had already arrived.

With my colleague Adrienne, I unboxed the long-traveling liquid. Like Max’s dinner in Where the Wild Things Are, it was still hot.

***

This sticker sealed the box that arrived from Spyhouse. (Robinson Meyer / The Atlantic)

Talking to Spyhouse’s founder and owner, Christian Johnson, I’ve been able to piece together the coffee’s temperature-history. Spyhouse uses water at exactly 203 degrees Fahrenheit to brew Las Nubes. Johnson estimates that by the time that liquid—now coffee—departs the brew shuttle, it’s between 175 and 180 degrees. Then it was capped, vacuum-sheathed, and sent on its way.

But still the conditions outside changed. “Depending on the exact placement of the package inside the aircraft, temperatures range from 40 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit during an average flight, with the average temperature being about 60 degrees,” a Fedex spokeswoman said of the Thermos’ cargo transit. And the pressure changed outside as well, rising to the equivalent of 8,000 feet above sea level.

It was about 72 degrees in the district as the package trundled through, and a few degrees cooler in my almost-refrigerated office. When we uncapped the Thermos, we measured its temperature to be 151 degrees.

Can you see the steam coming off the just-opened Stainless King? Maybe not? Okay, well, it totally was. (Robinson Meyer/The Atlantic)

“Wow. That’s amazing,” said Johnson, after I shared this heat conservation with him. “So really you only lost 25 degrees between when we capped the thermos to when you opened it.”

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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