Does Decaf Coffee Deserve Its Bad Rap?
Maybe it’s a simple pour-over in the quiet hours of the morning before anyone else in the house is awake. Or the powerful cold brews you grab for the team on your way to the office. It might be a foamy afternoon latte. Or an after-dinner affogato that’s both dessert and digestivo. Everyone’s coffee ritual is a little different, but more than half the country—about 150 million Americans—has one.
For many, caffeine, the naturally occurring stimulant found in coffee beans, tea leaves, and chocolate, is a big reason for that daily cup of coffee. Caffeine can help with focus and temporarily stave off fatigue. And for most, it’s safe in moderation (according to the FDA, healthy adults can have 400 milligrams, or about four cups of regular coffee, a day without negative effects).
But some people metabolize it differently or are just sensitive to it and can get jitters, anxiety, or a quickened heart rate after drinking coffee. Others have to avoid caffeine because of a medication they’re on or because they’re pregnant or nursing. And some might just want to enjoy a cappuccino later in the day without disrupting their sleep. Decaffeinated coffee seems like the obvious answer in those situations (and there is even some evidence that decaf might still offer some of the health benefits of coffee). But decaf has a pretty poor reputation in many quarters: The über-health-conscious don’t trust the chemicals used to decaffeinate. The artisanal coffee elite question the point of having any coffee sans caffeine. And many are under the impression that decaf simply tastes bad.
Is that bad rap deserved? We took a close look at the decaffeination process to find out.
IS DECAFFEINATED COFFEE CAFFEINE-FREE?
If you’re someone who’s highly sensitive to caffeine and won’t drink decaf because even that gives you a jolt, you’re onto something: Decaffeinated coffee is not completely caffeine-free. With any decaffeination process, it is very difficult to guarantee that the caffeine is entirely stripped from the beans. And the FDA doesn’t have an exact requirement for caffeine levels in decaf either—it simply says that decaf coffee typically has 2 to 15 milligrams of caffeine per 8-ounce cup. That’s significantly less than regular coffee has but certainly not caffeine-free.
And that’s just the amount of caffeine in the beans. Many variables—including brewing method, brewing time, and grind size—will affect how much caffeine is extracted from the bean into your coffee, even if you’re starting with decaf beans. The way coffee is consumed also has an effect: An espresso shot might technically have less caffeine than a cup of pour-over, but since we tend to drink an espresso shot quickly and nurse a cup of coffee over a longer period of time, the espresso might feel more intense. (This is true for regular and decaf.)
HOW DOES DECAFFEINATION WORK?
Removing caffeine without also removing important flavor compounds is tricky (the earliest successful method used benzene, now a known carcinogen). Today, two methods are used to decaffeinate beans safely while preserving flavor.
Ethyl Acetate Method
The EA method is quite similar to the early decaffeination process, but instead of using toxic benzene, it uses ethyl acetate. Ethyl acetate is a naturally occurring chemical that’s often found in fruit and can also be synthetically made from fermented sugarcane and alcohol. This decaffeination method is used in Colombia, where both coffee and sugarcane are widely available.
With the EA method, green (unroasted) coffee beans are steamed and then washed with an ethyl acetate solution to remove the caffeine. The beans are then washed again, to remove any residual ethyl acetate, and dried. Even if residual ethyl acetate remained after this second wash, its boiling point is 177°F, so it would not survive the roasting process, during which the temperature can reach 500°F.
Swiss Water Process
The Swiss Water Process is a patented method that’s known as the chemical-free process. It’s a bit complicated, but stick with us: Green coffee beans are soaked in hot water so that the water-soluble caffeine and flavor compounds are released from the bean. The water is separated from the beans, then filtered to remove the caffeine. The remaining water, called the green coffee extract, is free of most of the caffeine but still has all the flavor compounds. This solution is then used to soak the next fresh batch of green coffee beans. During this soak, caffeine moves out of the beans and into the water. The flavor molecules stay put in the beans because the water is already highly concentrated with flavor molecules. This process can take up to 10 hours.
Both of these processes claim to remove at least 97 percent of caffeine from the beans and can yield delicious coffee. The reasons roasters might choose one method over the other have little to do with efficacy, flavor, or health concerns and more to do with logistics and operations. The Swiss Water Process requires that the beans make a stop between the farmers and the roasters, whereas the EA process happens locally in Colombia before the beans are sent to roasters. (The Swiss Water Process can use beans from many different regions; EA is currently available only in Colombia.) Both are great safe options for decaffeinating artisan coffee beans.
DOES DECAF TASTE AS GOOD AS REGULAR COFFEE?
Decaf can taste great, as good as regular coffee, even. There’s definitely an air of snobbery toward decaf coffee, but more and more artisanal coffee brands have prioritized making a really good decaf available to their customers. The biggest thing working against decaf is that there isn’t much demand. That affects everything from the production and distribution of decaf beans to their preparation in coffee shops. (Your poor impression of decaf might be because your local coffee shop brews one pot of decaf at 8 a.m. to last the whole day. Not ideal. Next time, order a decaf Americano if you want to guarantee a fresh cup.)
“Decaf is for lovers” is a common refrain at Counter Culture Coffee, according the roasting company’s coffee educator Ryan Ludwig. (Counter Culture currently offers two decafs, one made using the Swiss Water Process and the other made using the EA process; Ludwig enjoys both himself.) It makes sense: Since decaf drinkers aren’t just slamming the obligatory morning cup to get through their commute, there’s something purer about their intentions. They’re in it for the flavor alone. They are, arguably, the biggest coffee fans of all.