Don't Sleep on Decaf

What do you think about decaf? Honestly, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? I asked a few people in my immediate vicinity what their thoughts were about decaffeinated coffee. What I heard from several people was some form of “it’s wimpy” to “why would I bother?” This isn’t a very scientific inquiry, admittedly, but I suspect their responses represent a common disposition to decaf - if I don’t get the jolt, what good is it? 

Which, as a coffee professional, brings me to the following existential crisis - am I just a drug peddler operating under the guise of “good coffee?” Are we only here for the caffeine - great taste and nuanced cup profiles and compelling stories be damned? 

In an effort to feel better about my chosen profession and redeem the oft-maligned decaf coffee, I’ve set out to better understand the world of wimpy, err decaf, coffee and mount a defense of its suitability among the ranks of its caffeinated counterparts.

Why is caffeine there in the first place? 

Caffeine is naturally occurring in coffee and many other plants we consume. It’s the caffeine that lights up our central nervous system. Coffee feels good. It wards off drowsiness and restores a sense of alertness. It even elevates our mood. But while this jolt to our system is a happy byproduct of coffee, it doesn’t answer the question of why it’s there in the first place. 

The answer, in fact, is a bit more nefarious. Coffee is laden with caffeine for the explicit purpose of MURDER! Not us, of course, but for pesky insects who would otherwise love to make a meal out of a coffee plant. Once bitten, the caffeine in coffee plants has a paralyzing effect on insects and can kill them on the spot.

The Flavor of Caffeine

Caffeine does indeed have a flavor. It’s bitter and alkaline, and is one of about 1,000 chemical compounds responsible for flavor and aroma in coffee. Caffeine’s bitterness also reacts with other flavor compounds in coffee through taste modulation. Further, the process of removing caffeine from coffee has the potential to change or remove other flavoring compounds in unroasted beans. 

But despite the fact that caffeine has a bitter flavor, it is not the major contributor to coffee’s perceived bitterness. The bitterness in coffee is actually due to the formation of proteins that are created in the roasting process. It’s estimated that less than 10% of the bitterness perceived in coffee is attributed to caffeine alone. 

So if caffeine is insignificant to the flavor of brewed coffee, why is there so much stigma attached to decaf? Is it actually much tastier than we’re giving it credit for? These are tough questions to answer, and I’ve got a few hunches that may surprise you. 

Decaffeinated versus Uncaffeinated Coffee

What’s the difference between decaf and uncaffeinated coffee? For starters, uncaffeinated coffee doesn’t exist, lol. This may come as a surprise, but all decaf coffees contain some amount of caffeine. Because caffeine is naturally occurring in coffee, and because our current science is less than perfect, no process exists to remove 100% of caffeine (though some come very close). 

The USDA has regulations on decaf that stipulates that it not exceed 0.10 percent on a dry basis (PDF). In reality, instead of 100% caffeine free, a 12 oz cup of decaf will contain roughly 5.4mg of caffeine. That’s a big difference from the fully caffeinated 180mg you’ll get from other coffees, but it’s not, in fact, nothing.

How Coffee Becomes Decaffeinated

This is the boring stuff. Like, seriously, if you have no interest in the various ways coffees can be decaffeinated then please just skip ahead to the next section. But I’m a show your work kinda guy, so here’s where we’ll get into the nitty gritty of decaffeination. 

Okay fellow nerds, now that the plebs are gone, this next part is actually really cool. What most decaffeination processes have in common is that they 1) occur while coffee is in its green, unroasted state, 2) attempt to remove strictly the caffeine, rather than other flavoring compounds, and 3) rely on caffeine’s natural water-solubility. 

The first attempt at decaf came from Dr. Ludwig Roselius in Germany in the early 1900s. Dr. Roselius was convinced (psst, I don’t believe him) that his father, a coffee merchant, had died from overexposure to caffeine. He developed a method that used steam and the chemical solvent benzine to remove caffeine, and labeled his product Sanka from the French “sans caffeine.” While notable as a pioneer, his process was later halted when researchers discovered benzine to be a human carcinogen. 

Direct versus Indirect-Solvent Methods

The direct-solvent method involves steaming green coffee beans in order to open their pores, and then introducing a solvent for several hours to extract the caffeine. The solvent used is either methylene chloride or ethyl acetate, and their molecules bond with caffeine molecules. The solvent is then drained, which carries away the caffeine with it, and the beans are steamed again to remove any remaining solvent.

In the indirect-solvent method the green coffee is soaked in hot water for several hours. During this time, caffeine, along with other flavoring compounds, are removed with the water and transferred to another tank and introduced, again, to either methylene chloride or ethyl acetate. The caffeine bonds with the solvent and the water is heated to evaporate both. The remaining liquid, rich in flavoring compounds and oils, is reintroduced to the coffee beans and absorbed. 

Swiss Water Process

Listen, if “Swiss Water” is in the name of anything, I’m going to think it’s superior to the alternatives. Like, it just sounds fresh, right? I feel like it must come from high on the Alps, and when the process is complete someone sounds one of those giant horns from the mountain top. Riiiicooolaaaaaa! 

But in reality, though this process was introduced in Switzerland in the 1930s, all Swiss Water Process coffee is processed in Canada with, uh, normal Canada water. It starts with soaking the green coffee in hot water to dissolve the caffeine. That water is then passed through an activated charcoal filter that allows smaller molecules of flavoring compounds to pass through, but not the larger molecules of caffeine. With the trapped caffeine discarded, the flavor-charged water is reintroduced to the coffee beans and then filtered again. This process happens over and over for roughly 10 hours until an impressive 99.9% of caffeine has been trapped and removed. 

CO2 Process

The CO2 Process is very cool, but also very expensive. At the present time, only super huge coffee companies are really doing this to produce ho-hum commercial-grade coffees that you might find on the supermarket shelf. Water-soaked green beans are placed in a stainless steel container and CO2 is forced into the coffee at a whopping 1,000 pounds per square inch. The CO2 dissolves the caffeine molecules and is transferred to another container.

The Cost of Decaf

As you may imagine, the cost of any of these methods can be expensive. These processes can be time-consuming and labor-intensive, requiring highly specialized equipment. And many of the world’s leading decaffeination facilities reside far outside of areas where coffee is actually grown. This means, for instance, a coffee from Colombia may need to be first shipped to Germany for decaffeination, and then shipped to the U.S. for roasting, adding a significant travel cost to the finished product. 

This cost of decaf is a good segue into the next section. The issue at hand isn’t whether or not it’s possible to make high-quality decaf coffee. The real question is are we willing to pay for it? 

But Why Does Decaf Taste Bad?

If we assume the original green coffee is good, can we blame the decaffeination? The decaffeination process can impact flavor compounds in coffee, resulting in green coffee beans that have less flavor potential than their fully caffeinated counterparts. But decaf processing has come a long way, and there are numerous stellar companies producing excellent results. 

If the decaffeination is good, can we blame the roaster? It’s true that decaffeinated green coffee has a different shade (it’s brownish) and moisture content than other coffee, meaning decafs can be tricky to roast. However, many of the top roasters are churning out incredible decaf coffees. 

If the roaster is good, can we blame the coffee shop? Aha! Now we’re on to something. Coffee shops and baristas don’t often give their decaf much thought, either in the way in which the coffee is brewed, nor in its freshness. So, yeah, decaf does often suck. And we’re making it suck! But we can fix this. We should start by dialing in decaf with the same care that we give our other coffees. Make it available as a pour over, so customers are getting fresh coffee that lives up to its potential. Lastly, and this is a big one, stop storing decaf in airpots all day long waiting for someone to order it. Boom! We just fixed decaf. 

But we can’t do this alone. The coffee drinking public is our partner in this effort. We need to you to give decaf a chance if you want things to improve. We need you to raise your expectations when you visit a coffee shop. We need you to ask your barista about the name, country of origin and brewing specs of the decaf. In short, we need you to hold us accountable. And, we need consumers to understand the cost of quality decaf and to be willing to pay for it.

Our Decaf Option

We carry a beautiful decaffeinated coffee from Huila, Colombia, that I’m very proud to serve. It’s called Decaf Amigos, and is composed of microlots from four small producers from the micro-regions of San Agustín and Bruselas. The concept of a sub-regional blend comes from the desire to support smallholder farmers by combining very small lots to produce a larger coffee with better marketability. Truly, these lots together are greater than the sum of their parts.

Decaf Amigos is decaffeinated using the Ethyl Acetate process. This process utilizes sugarcane, which is often grown at lower elevations than coffee and frequently planted at the bottom of the same mountains where coffee is grown. The Ethyl Acetate process gently extracts the caffeine from coffee beans as the solvent is washed over the beans repeatedly until more than 97% of the caffeine has been removed.

The result is a lovely coffee with warm apple and raspberry pie flavors, a creamy texture and lots of complexity. It performs exceptionally well as a filter coffee, makes for a refreshing iced coffee and doesn’t miss a beat when prepared in an espresso beverage. We roast in small batches, which helps ensure proper freshness. And if you order online, you’ll always have a fresh and delicious bag coming your way.