Tempting Temperatures

Eric Lis

Last week’s discussion of hot chocolate was incomplete by virtue of not discussing at what temperature it tastes best.

As I’ve commented here in the past and as many greater minds than I have similarly observed, for almost any question in the world, someone, somewhere, has tried to study it. The world is full of scientists with a bit too much free time and a hilarious lack of common sense, a combination which, to only slightly misquote Frank Zappa, is necessary combination for society to advance. Many, many very silly experiments have been conducted throughout history, not merely in people’s back yards and garages, but not infrequently in respected centers of higher learning. The funny thing is that sometimes, these seemingly silly questions are actually very important to ask. Case in point: there’s actually a rich body of research on the question of how hot one should serve coffee, tea, and hot chocolate.

Hot liquids actually cause a lot of morbidity and, from time to time, morality. This is particularly true in pediatrics, where the most horrific cases often involve accidents within the home and scald injuries from hot liquids are the most common cause of serious burns (half of those, unsurprisingly, in the kitchen). There’s always a lot of mockery when someone makes the news for sustaining severe burns from dropping restaurant coffee on themselves, but the reality is that it’s a common enough occurrence for there to be a rich literature about it in the medical journals. We know, for example, which liquids pose the highest risk; a paper published in 2010 demonstrated that black tea and coffee sitting in ordinary room air remain hot enough to cause serious skin damage for at least 10 minutes. Adding cold milk speeds up beverage cooling by a small amount, but adding sugar and stirring doesn’t. The upshot of most of this research isn’t that we should be afraid of hot drinks, but rather that adults should be careful about leaving coffee mugs where toddlers might grab and spill them.

More ambitious, though, is a 2008 study which aimed at scientifically determining the best temperature at which to serve hot drinks, balancing the dangers of hot liquid with the importance of pleasing a customer. They combined data on how badly a hot drink can burn over time with previously collected data on what temperature the average person likes to drink their coffee (around 50 – 70 Celsius or 130 – 150 Fahrenheit, if you were wondering) and analyzed where the optimum risk/benefit balance would be. These authors concluded that the ideal temperature to consume a hot drink would be 57.8 Celcius (136 Fahrenheit) and that therefore restaurants could be advised to serve their drinks just a teeny, tiny bit cooler than they typically do. Of course, the really hilarious part of this is that through the miracle of mathematical models all of this was able to be done without having an actual human being sample a drink.

All of this relates back to last week’s discussion about how our expectations of food change how delicious we perceive it to be. We all have expectations of how hot our drinks are “supposed” to be, and their deliciousness is in part related to how close they are, or appear to be, to this ideal. Coffee shops know this, which is why a lot of money gets spent on advertising to remind people how wonderful an iced coffee tastes during the summer. The big coffee chains could probably persuade people to want their coffee cooler if they wanted to… it would just take a few years of concerted advertising to shift public expectations.

All of this provides a potentially amusing way for storytellers to mess with their players a bit. Taverns are perhaps the chief cliché of modern conceptualizations of medieval fantasy, and yet, for all the ale they drink, when was the last time your players stopped to ask what temperature their drinks were? In the real world, this can actually make a difference; it can be a grave insult to serve ice-cold British beer or cellar-temperature American beer. Perhaps while passing through an unfamiliar country, players suddenly learn that local drinks are served at eighty or ninety Celsius, a discovery which might result in some lost hit points. Alternately, this is just another way to add some local color to a region, or to create an unusual dish. Or, if nothing else, it might just be helpful to remember when you have little kids (or friends with ADHD) around the gaming table. 

More than four years ago, Dr. Eris Lis, M.D., began writing a series of brilliant and informative posts on RPGs through the eyes of a medical professional, and this is the one that appeared here on April 24, 2016. Lis is a physician, gamer, and author of the Skirmisher Publishing LLC OGL sourcebook Insults & Injuries, which is also available for the Pathfinder RPG system