Jonathan Muskat

Can I buy plain, brewed hot coffee at Starbucks?

Someone asked me last week whether he could have coffee at Starbucks. Not the fancy coffee, mind you. Just the plain, brewed hot coffee. After all, he read the Chicago Rabbinical Council (CRC) updated guide to Starbucks beverages and according to that guide, the recommendation is that one should not purchase plain, brewed coffee. Why? According to the CRC guide, the “brew basket may have been washed with non-kosher items. Although the brew basket is only used as a kli sheini, the CRC recommends purchasing items which are free of all shailos.”

In its introduction to this list, the CRC guide states, “When evaluating these issues, Rav Reiss שליט׳׳א, Av Beis Din of the cRc, acknowledged that there is basis for being lenient on many of the items being sold at Starbucks stores, but directed the cRc to be true to the mission of a reliable Kashrus Agency which only recommends items that are free of all shailos and not those which are only acceptable b’dieved. He noted that this is especially true because there are viable alternatives in every Starbucks store.” The Star-K is potentially more lenient than the CRC, at least explicitly. On its Starbucks list, plain, brewed hot coffee is only acceptable when traveling, which is viewed as a “b’dieved” situation. Other than that, one should not buy this type of coffee at Starbucks. What are the halachic issues involved here? What is the concern?

Non-kosher food is heated up and sold at Starbucks. Utensils that are used to handle non-kosher food and dishes with hot non-kosher food residue are washed in a dishwasher at the coffee shop. There is a concern that the brew basket used to brew the coffee may have been washed in a dishwasher with non-kosher items, either the non-kosher food residue or the non-kosher utensils. Therefore, it is possible that the brew basket may absorb non-kosher taste.  Coffee grinds are placed on top of a filter paper which in turn is supported by the brew basket. Then hot water pours through the grinds and drips through the filter into an urn as coffee. When the hot water is poured on the potentially non-kosher brew basket, this is called “irui kli rishon” (literally pouring hot water from a pot that was on a fire onto an item). According to halacha, does taste transfer from the brew basket to the water through the process of irui kli rishon? The halacha is that any minimal taste transfer from the brew basket through irui kli rishon is nullified in the water. (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De-ah, 91:4; Shach, 91:8, Taz 91:7)

Now there is a halacha of “ain mevatlin issur l’chatchila,” that we may not intentionally nullify a prohibited food item (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De-ah, 99:5). This means that we shouldn’t pour hot water onto a non-kosher item such that taste from the non-kosher item is transferred to the water even if that taste is ultimately nullified into the water. However, when we order a coffee at Starbucks, the baristas at Starbucks are the ones who are pouring the hot water through the non-kosher brew basket. We are simply asking them to pour kosher coffee from an urn into a cup. As such, the prohibition of “ain mevatlin issur l’chatchila” would not apply here.

I spoke to an expert from a major national kashrut agency who told me that, for the reasons mentioned above, plain, brewed hot coffee at Starbucks poses no halachic problems whatsoever. He did mention to me that Rabbi Yisroel Belsky, zt”l, former senior halachic consultant for the Orthodox Union, felt that ideally one should not purchase coffee at Starbucks. He was concerned that many people might not be aware of all the halachically problematic types of coffee at Starbucks and they might mistakenly purchase halachically problematic types of coffee there.

Bottom line: Can I buy plain, brewed hot coffee at Starbucks? Halachically, the coffee is absolutely kosher. The rabbinic leadership of the CRC and the Star-K feel that one should be stringent and not purchase coffee when we are relying on the halachic principle of bittul, or nullification, even when bittul is halachically effective. The CRC only officially approves coffee that meets this higher standard, whereas the Star-K will officially approve plain, brewed hot coffee in “bdieved” situations like when one is traveling. Rabbi Belsky apparently was not in favor of the lists that the CRC and the Star-K posted highlighting what types of coffee one could and could not buy. He was concerned about mistakes and therefore advised that ideally one should not buy any coffee at Starbucks.

Where does this leave us? Halachically, you can purchase plain, brewed hot coffee at Starbucks and that is a legitimate position. You can also follow the Star-K or the CRC stringencies of only purchasing types of coffee that are acceptable on their lists, with the potential of greater leniency, according to the Star-K, when you are traveling. That is also a legitimate position. You can also follow Rabbi Belsky’s position and not buy any coffee at Starbucks. That is also a legitimate position. Each position is a legitimate position and we should not criticize those who wish to adopt any of these four positions, provided, however, that we are fully aware of what approach is halachic and what approach is a stringency.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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