One of the hallmarks of the elitist, too cool barista stereotype of the '90s and '00s is a disdain for that ultimate insult to the purity of coffee: decaffeination. "Death Before Decaf" tattoos and t-shirts once lined coffee shops and that attitude still remains among some coffee professionals. But, what if I were to tell you that decaffeinated coffee can be totally delicious? And that many roasters are realizing that decaf coffee beans are not only very tasty, but also an important tool to reach previously ignored customers? Welcome to the tasty world of specialty decaf!
Decaffeination is performed on green coffee (meaning beans that have been dried but not yet roasted). According to legend, the first decaffeination happened accidentally when some coffee beans fell overboard into the sea and were acted on by salt water. While that exact process is not nearly as effective for removing caffeine (don’t try it at home, I promise), the idea of soaking coffee to remove caffeine is the basis for most decaffeination. Ludwig Roselius obtained the first decaffeination patent in 1906, and his process involved soaking the beans in a vacuum to extract many of its compounds then a touch of ammonia, followed by chloroform or benzene to strip the caffeine from that solution, before adding back all the other compounds except the caffeine into the coffee.
As you might expect, the world at large eventually turned on the idea of using benzene in something we drink, but the general soaking concept proved long-lasting. Currently popular methods replace that ammonia and benzene cocktail with chemicals like Methylene Chloride or Ethyl Acetate, which might have scary names, but are definitely safe at the amounts used to make decaf and preserve coffee’s flavor relatively well. Another popular method involves using pressurized Carbon Dioxide to strip a coffee’s caffeine.
The Swiss Water process (which is actually based in British Columbia), uses a green coffee extract to help that caffeine travel out of the green coffee while losing as little of the other materials in it as possible (Swiss Water is also pretty great at making videos, check this one for a fairly detailed break down of their setup and this one for a slightly cuter, less machinery focused version). According to Ted Stachura, the Director of Coffee at Equator Coffees & Teas, “Decaf processing has come a long way in the last couple of decades, decaffeinated coffees are simply better today than they once were.”
So why isn’t delivering a decaf that’s exactly as good as every caffeinated coffee still super-common? Some of it comes down to economics. There are already so many steps coffee has to go through between getting picked off the tree and getting poured in your cup, and decaffeination, like all of them, costs money. So if a roaster buys the same quality coffee for their regular and decaf offerings, that decaf is going to be more expensive (a cost that most roasters don’t feel comfortable passing on to customers). And in shops, especially with espresso, which is a notoriously finicky brew method, baristas sometimes don’t pay as much attention to quality in the same way they do with caffeinated espresso, which gets ordered way more often.
But the advancements in decaf technology have gone hand in hand with a growing sentiment among coffee roasters that decaf drinkers are both important to their bottom line and in some ways, the ideal customer. For an industry that has in some ways struggled to convince the masses that coffee is a flavor experience and not just a caffeine boost, there is a growing sentiment that, as Stachura puts it, “Those who drink decaf are the biggest fans of coffee since they drink decaf for its taste alone and not the added benefit of a caffeine boost.” The mix of authenticity concerns (“It’s not real coffee!”) and aggressive, hypermasculine branding (“Coffee needs to be strong enough to damn near kill you!”) might finally be making way for an attitude that, as Stephanie Dana, the Director of Operation at Brooklyn’s Parlor Coffee summed up for us as, “Delicious, traceable coffees should be enjoyed by all, including those with caffeine sensitivities!”
When we asked roasters about sourcing their decafs, the common theme was that there’s not really a huge difference, in principle, between how they source their decaf and caffeinated coffees. As Brian Beyke from Louisville’s Quills Coffee puts it, they “look for a decaf that offers the same kind of drinkability and depth of flavor” as their caffeinated offerings. There certainly wasn’t anyone who treated decaf like an afterthought in any way, and everyone we spoke to seemed legitimately excited to talk about decaf.
Are we heading towards a future where decaffeinated coffee shares equal billing on menus and in the hearts of coffee drinkers? It’s certainly not that far-fetched an idea. At the SCA Coffee Expo in Boston, I had the honor of brewing a Swiss Water decaf coffee from Burundi one afternoon, and while I’d be lying if I said everyone was excited to try it, nearly everyone that did enjoyed it quite a bit. And no-one who didn’t already know it was a decaf was able to identify it as such. And, after a very caffeinated morning, many coffee pros were downright relieved to be offered a delicious caffeine-free option. Who knows if decaf technology will progress to the point where they taste exactly like their caffeinated counterparts, but many roasters already believe that, in the words of Beyke, their decaf “offers the same satisfaction [they] seek from the rest of [their] lineup,” and I think soon coffee drinkers will believe it too.
Check out our wide range of delicious decaf coffees.