Good decaf, it's not a myth / by Bryan Hibbard

Yeah, I know, most of you shudder at the thought of decaf coffee. "That's not real coffee, you say." But, I know that there are many people who can't have or don't want the caffeine, but they still want a good cup of coffee. Is that too much to ask?

In truth, for most of coffee's history, decaf has been some of the very worst coffee available. I remember that familiar "wet cardboard" aroma, that underwhelming flavor, those dark oily beans. When I started my coffee roasting business, I was wary of carrying decaf, because of those bad memories. But then I thought of those customers who wanted to try my coffee but could only have decaf. And so I started trying decaf lots from my importer and found one I liked. I have had a few decaf coffees over the years from Colombia and Mexico. My current offering is a Swiss Water Process Colombia: Excelso. I will continue to search for great decafs.

So what is involved in the decaffeination process? In a nutshell, it is removing the caffeine from the unroasted beans while trying to keep as much of the integrity of the original coffee as possible. The process is always going to degrade the beans, so rather than using the worst beans available you actually want really good beans. There are a few different ways to decaffeinate coffee.

  • Chemical solvent- the two most common chemicals are dichloromethane and ethyl acetate. This method is the most efficient but involves the use of chemicals. This is the most common decaf process in commercial coffee. FDA studies say that the chemicals do not survive the roasting process, so this is safe. Many specialty roasters (myself included) prefer to use a water-only process to avoid chemicals.
  • Swiss Water Process- This method is done in Vancouver and involves using a coffee-saturated water solution to extract caffeine by osmosis. In essence, coffee beans are soaked in water until everything is extracted. The caffeine is removed from the solution, and the beans that will be used for the decaf are introduced. The caffeine is removed and the rest of the elements stay in the beans. This is my preferred method since it only uses water.
  • Mountain Water Process- Very similar to Swiss Water, but done in a facility in Mexico.
  • CO2- Carbon Dioxide is forced through the beans, this process tends to degrade the beans more than others, so it is mostly used in large commercial operations.
  • Natural solvent- This is a newer process where the coffee is decaffeinated at origin using natural ingredients. One example is using fermented sugarcane (which naturally produces ethyl acetate). This is still not common, but the results have been excellent. I am hoping to find a good lot from this method to bring in in the future.

Specialty decaf has been a tough sell for my business. Many regular decaf drinkers have accepted the myth that all decaf is bad. But, I hope I can change the opinion of decaf. It really can be great coffee. Even for those who enjoy a morning cup, decaf is great to have with an after-dinner dessert.