November 8, 2018

What’s The Truth About Decaffeinated Coffee?


Many of us have experienced the effects of too much coffee. Shaky hands, a racing heartbeat, and anxiety are common experiences caused by over-caffeination. For some people, even a small amount of caffeine can have a negative effect. Decaffeinated coffee can be a great option if you have a sensitivity or for those who just prefer to avoid the stimulating effect of caffeine.

But can decaf coffee be specialty coffee? Are there decaffeinated versions of micro lot coffees that taste as good? And how does decaffeination work anyway? There are some common misconceptions about the quality and health risks of decaf coffee. Let’s take a look at the truth.

You may also like Brew Methods Compared: How Should You Make Cold Brew Coffee?

assortment of coffee drinks

Assortment of coffee drinks

Who Drinks Decaf And Why?

All coffee naturally contains caffeine. The chemical compound is thought to protect coffee and other caffeine-containing plants against predator insects and prevent germination of competing seeds.

It is also a stimulant and people have valued this effect for millennia. But sometimes we want a delicious cup of coffee without the buzz. There are many reasons people choose decaf over regular coffee, including it being perceived as a healthier option.

A 2018 National Coffee Association (NCA) report shows that 42% of all coffee consumers drink decaf and of these consumers, young adults lead the trend. Some market research has indicated that decaf drinkers are willing to pay more for high-quality coffee than other consumers.

Learn more in Millennials Turn to Decaf: What Does This Mean for Café Owners?

decaf coffee grounds ready to dial in

Coffee grounds ready to be extracted. Credit: Rea Cafe

How Does Decaffeination Work?

The first reported method of decaffeination was created by Ludwig Roselius in 1905. Roselius used benzene to remove caffeine from moistened green coffee beans. Benzene is now known to be a carcinogen, so it’s not recommended to try this technique.

But all modern methods of decaffeination start in this same way. Green coffee beans are moistened, which makes the caffeine soluble, and then the caffeine is extracted. They simply use different techniques to remove the caffeine.

Direct Solvent Method

This is the most popular method of decaffeinating coffee. The direct solvent method uses either methylene chloride or ethyl acetate to extract caffeine.

Coffee beans are soaked and then immersed in the solvent, which attaches to the caffeine molecules. The solvent is then recaptured in an evaporator, and the beans are washed. Any remaining solvent residues are removed with steaming. The beans are dried and go on to be roasted like any other green coffee.

The US Food and Drug Administration limits the amount of methylene chloride to 10 parts per million (0.001%) in decaffeinated roasted coffee. But occupational exposure to methylene chloride has been linked to increased risk for several cancers, so there is some concern about using this solvent.

Ethyl acetate is often derived from fruit or cane sugar, so when it is used, the direct solvent method is sometimes known as natural decaffeination. But ethyl acetate is highly flammable, making it riskier to work with. It is also reported to have a characteristic odor, which can remain in the decaffeinated coffee.

Roasted decaf coffee beans

Roasted coffee beans.

Carbon Dioxide Method

Carbon dioxide decaffeination is similar to the direct solvent method, but uses pressurized carbon dioxide. The liquid carbon dioxide is circulated through the moist green coffee beans and attaches to the caffeine. It is then allowed to evaporate or passed through charcoal filters.

Carbon dioxide decaffeination has low toxicity, but the method is more expensive to set up than the direct solvent method. It reportedly typically extracts slightly more caffeine than the direct solvent method.

brewing shot of espresso into cup

An espresso falling into a cup. Credit: Neil Soque

Swiss Water Method

This proprietary water method uses green coffee extract and carbon to remove caffeine by osmosis. Don’t be put off by that term – you don’t need to understand much science to get how it works.

The coffee beans are immersed in very hot water and then introduced to a mixture of water and green coffee extract. This mixture has already been reduced in caffeine. Because the green coffee extract wants to create balance, it draws the caffeine from the immersed beans.

The water from each bath is then passed through activated charcoal, which traps the caffeine. The coffee beans pass through a series of these baths to remove almost all the caffeine. And the water and green coffee extract can then be reused in another bath.

This method is more expensive than solvent methods and the extracted caffeine cannot be recovered and sold separately.

roasted and unroasted coffee samples

Roasted and unroasted coffee beans. Credit: Julio Guevara

Mountain Water Method

This is another proprietary method that uses glacier water to extract caffeine. Descamex explains that the company uses a “special filter” to remove caffeine.

The resulting caffeine-free water-based solution is saturated with solid coffee solubles from the beans and this water is used again in the extraction process.

Because both this method and the Swiss Water one don’t use chemicals, some consumers see them as safer and healthier options.

Learn more in How Do You Process Swiss Water Decaf Coffee? Two VIDEO Explanations

assortment of coffee drinks

A variety of coffee drinks. Credit: Neil Soque

Can Decaf Be Specialty Coffee?

Decaf coffee used to have a reputation as flavorless. Caffeine itself is does not have a taste, but some methods of decaffeination remove important flavor-producing compounds alongside the caffeine.

The challenge for any decaffeination company is to find a method that extracts a high amount of caffeine without affecting the flavor of the bean. In the specialty world, this is even more critical.

Person holding a latte

Latte art on an espresso-based drink. Credit: Devon Barker

Matt Hassell is a global buyer and is responsible for quality control and sample management at Collaborative Coffee Source. He says, “One of the most common processes is to use a solvent to dissolve the caffeine. This method is damaging to the flavor because it’s not possible to target just the caffeine. Other positive compounds are also being dissolved in this process and it ultimately has a negative influence on the cup.”

He also tells me that lesser quality coffees are typically selected for this method, so the flavor profile isn’t the best to start with.

But this doesn’t mean that you can’t have decaf specialty coffee. By starting with quality beans and using other methods of decaffeination, you can make a great cup of coffee.

“[With Swiss Water method] you’re left with what should be the same coffee as before. This method does require a little more cost, and that may be the reason why it’s used less often,” Matt says.

Decaffeinated coffee brewed in Chemex

Coffee brewed in a Chemex. Credit: Michel

Erin Reed, Director of Marketing at Swiss Water, says that the Swiss Water method leaves the soluble solids in the coffee bean, and that this technique of processing captures only the caffeine molecule “by using a proprietary carbon that is pore specific to caffeine.”

She says, “These steps ensure the flavor nuances from each region and origin are protected and represented in the final cup of decaf coffee. For every batch of coffee we decaffeinate, we conduct a pre and post cupping to confirm this is achieved.”

Why not do something similar for your own use or coffee shop? Order a range of decaf coffees from different suppliers, with different origins, and using different decaffeination methods. Approach them with an open mind in a cupping and you might find more than one worth adding to your specialty menu.

Brewing decaf coffee

A barista brews coffee on a v60. Credit: Kinima Coffee

Does Decaf Have to Be Dark Roasted?

Matt tells me coffee that has undergone decaffeination is typically are more porous and more receptive to heat. This means that the roaster has to make some adjustments.

“The roasting process is a bit more sensitive,” he says. “The roast profile is required to be longer, with slower development. The process itself typically removes some positive flavor compounds, so a lighter roast will be lacking in the flavor department, and sweetness and acidity are compromised. So the alternative is to roast it darker than you typically would another coffee to build caramelization and enhance sweetness.”

coffee ready to be served

Freshly brewed pour over coffee. Credit: Sebastian Franzén

If this roasting technique sounds like the opposite of what you’re looking for in specialty coffee, don’t be disheartened. Matt says, “There are fantastic decaffeinated coffees out there. You may just have to hunt a little.”

“While you won’t exactly get the same flavor you would [without decaffeination], there are still some decaffeinated coffees that have natural acidity and sweetness, even at lower roast levels,” he explains.

“Decaffeination has come a long way, and the Swiss Water process does a decent job of leaving you with a similar bean to what you had started with. I think the problem lies in the fact that [some] people are using lower quality green beans to make their decaf. You sort of get out what you put in.”

“We’re currently discussing decaf options with one of our Colombian suppliers that should end up scoring 86+. Hopefully it works out,” Matt says.

You may also like What Roasters Need to Know About Decaf Coffee

Decaf coffee in V60 carafe

Freshly brewed coffee. Credit: Coffee and I

Finding a decaffeinated coffee that has the kind of profile you look for in a specialty coffee may be a little more difficult, but there are options out there.

Through understanding the different decaffeination processes and keeping an eye on how decaffeinated beans are roasted, you can choose a coffee with all the depth of flavor and nuances of a specialty bean without the stimulation.

Yes, buying quality decaf beans can be more expensive. But with younger generations increasingly choosing decaf and willing to pay for quality, it’s worth seeking out options for your café.

Enjoyed this? Check out How Can We Help Consumers Understand Coffee Flavour Notes?

Perfect Daily Grind

Want to read more articles like this? Sign up for our newsletter!