There is a common misconception that decaf coffee is simply incomparable to the real deal. Perhaps this was once the case but, I am here with the news for you coffee ‘feinds trying to cut down on caffeine have been waiting for - you no longer have to suffer through a subpar cup of morning brown to get your caffeine-free coffee fix.
As the world begins to focus on producing higher quality coffee, decaf has certainly not been left behind.
Decaffeinated coffee is still coffee. Simple. The ‘caffeine’ gene is removed through a chosen decaffeination process, which is often assumed to result in a loss of flavour. This assumption is not entirely false, in some instances it is plausible that the decaf process has contributed to a loss of flavour. However, it is also entirely possible that the initial quality of beans used has played a greater role.
So, is the decaf process to blame? Or perhaps the quality of green beans used? We all know one thing is for sure - bad quality beans will always result in a bad quality coffee.
There are many methods far and inbetween to process decaf. Let’s explore this. To understand how the decaf process occurs let’s split them into two subtopics; Solvent based and Non-Solvent based processes. So pour yourself a cup of coffee, caffeine or caffeine free and let’s dive in!
Solvent based decaf processes include using chemicals such as Ethyl Acetate (EA) (also known as The Sugarcane Process) and Methylene Chloride. Non-Solvent processes of decaf include The Swiss Water Decaf process, Co2 process and Mountain Water process.
Lets first discuss solvent based processes. Now hold on one minute! They aren’t as scary as they sound. The EA method is by far one of the most popular ways to decaffeinate coffee.
EA is actually a naturally occurring chemical found in some fruits and is a by-product of fermented sugars - banana skin and sugar cane are a great example of this.
How it happens:
Green beans are first steamed at a low pressure for approximately 30 minutes. This opens the pores of the coffee for easier caffeine extraction. The beans are then soaked in a solution of water and EA. The EA in the solution bonds with the salts of chlorogenic acids inside the beans, removing the caffeine. The tank is drained and the beans are then soaked in fresh solution. This process occurs multiple times over an 8 hour period - until the beans are at least 97% decaffeinated. The coffee is then steamed one final time to ensure there is no EA remaining. This concludes the decaffeination process and the beans are then dried, polished and prepared for export.
*E.A is a safe process and only harmful to humans in very large quantities. If you would like to read more about this process check out this info from Cafe imports. Suppliers take many measures to ensure no E.A is left behind. This is ensured by a final wash, soak, steam and then roasting at very high temperatures. While this is technically a natural chemical it has been said when producing at commercial scale synthetic products are required, implying the product would no longer be organic/natural.
Now that we’ve got Solvent processes out of the way, let’s discuss an emerging and increasingly popular, non-solvent method of decaf - The Swiss Water Decaf process. This is a proven technique that is mainly (but not limited to) carried out by The Swiss Water Decaffeinated process inc. The process heavily relies on the Green Coffee Extract (GCE). GCE is created from soaking green beans and the soluble solids within coffee (without the caffeine ).
How it happens:
The green beans are first soaked in water until the ideal level of hydration/moisture to remove caffeine is achieved. This process also washes away any excess dirt that may remain on the beans.
The beans are then dropped into large water tanks along with the GCE and circulated aggressively for 8-10 hours. The caffeine molecules bind to the GCE, effectively removing up to 99% of caffeine molecules from the beans. Everything is then sent through a carbon filter which attracts the GCE/caffeine bonded molecules and leaves the beans to pass through the filter caffeine free. The leftover GCE/caffeine bonded molecules (referred to as carbon) is then sent away to a furnace to burn off the caffeine. This is so the GCE can be regenerated, improved and reused. This means they do not need to re-create fresh GCE for every extraction process. Post decaf process the coffee beans are dried, packed and ready to be shipped to roasters.
The infographic below (Provided by Swiss Water Decaffeinated processes inc.) explains the process.
*Image from swisswater.com
How do roasters approach sourcing and roasting decaf?
As previously mentioned there are unfortunately sometimes negative connotations attached to decaf coffee. We wanted to understand roasters' attitude and approach to decaf. So, we reached out to our good friends at Semi Pro Coffee and here is what they had to say.
“We approach it like we approach any other coffee...source a quality product and you end up with a quality product. It’s easy to cheap out on decaf if you convince yourself that it’s a lost cause, but ultimately there is good stuff out there if you’re willing to look.” (Jason, Founder of Semi Pro Coffee)
We definitely have to agree, there are some extremely tasty decafs out there. Go on, give them a go. Stop being so judgemental! ;)
Check out some of our tasty decafs below.
Author: Alex G