Even the mention of decaf will bring a sneer of disgust to most coffee fans’ faces. “What’s the point?” I’ve heard. But if you stop to think about it, there are many reasons to embrace decaf coffee: perhaps one has heart issues, and their doctor suggests holding off on the caffeine; perhaps one’s tolerance to caffeine has changed, but they don’t want to interrupt their love affair with the heavenly elixir; perhaps one loves drinking coffee all day long, but they also have to get their heinie in bed at a reasonable hour so they can be effective at adulting. There are more reasons, certainly, but you get the point. So, with clearly valid reasons for decaf to exist in the world, what is it that causes such a strong negative reaction? I propose it is from generations of drinking sub-par decaf.
Let’s start at the beginning. Before coffee is roasted, it is called green beans. It’s small, dense like a stone, and can vary in color from light yellow to a beautiful jade. It has all the flavor in it that it was meant to have, it just needs coaxing to get it to come out. For most green beans, this means roasting. We all know what loveliness this yields. Other green beans have another stop to make before the roasting happens: Decaffeination.
There are three main methods of decaffeination widely used today. There’s the chemical process, the water process, and the CO2 process.
- In the chemical process , the coffee is soaked in a vat of hot water to facilitate caffeine extraction. Next, a compound is added, either methylene chloride, approved by the FDA of course, or ethyl acetate, a naturally occurring compound found in fruit. The caffeine is attracted to the compound, and the water is removed from the vat. Then the caffeine laden compound is removed from the water, and the water added back to the green beans to reabsorb the coffee flavor.
- In the water process , the coffee is also soaked in a vat of hot water, but instead of adding chemicals, this method relies on solubility and osmosis. After a good soaking, the water containing the caffeine and flavor oils is removed from the green beans and passed through filters that allow the flavor molecules to pass through, but trap the caffeine molecules. The first batch of green beans is discarded, and the flavor rich water is used to soak the next batch of green beans. Since the water is already jam-packed with flavor, only the caffeine is extracted from the green beans. The cycle is continued from there. The result is decaffeinated green beans that have retained their flavor. (Think of the result of boiling chicken in water versus chicken stock: bland chicken, or amazingly tasty chicken.)
- In the CO2 process , we start the same way, with a vat full of green beans and hot water. CO2 is pressurized and added to the green bean water. The caffeine molecules are attracted to the CO2, which is then removed to another tank, and depressurized, allowing it to return to a gaseous state and thereby releasing the caffeine. The green beans are then removed to dry, all full of flavor and awesomeness, while the CO2 is pressurized again for the next batch of green beans.
The chemical process of decaffeination calls to mind a method tomato producers use to make their tomatoes last the trip to the grocery store. They pick green tomatoes and expose them to ethylene, a naturally occurring hormone that expedites the reddening of tomatoes. Everyone knows tomatoes bought in January really taste like a flat version of “the real thing.” They lack the vibrancy that makes tomatoes such a treat in the summer. Perhaps this process, although likely to have progressed in effectiveness throughout the generations, is a good deal why people sneer at decaf coffee. In contrast, the CO2 process is an exciting and new method that seems to be the most efficient of the three. But, honestly, it is an expensive venture, and your wallet will likely feel the impact. Decaffeination facilities must seriously weigh the return on investment. That leaves the water process.
The average Joe has probably heard of the Swiss Water Process. There is also the Mountain Water Process (MWP). What’s the difference? “Swiss Water Process” is a trademarked name, and it is processed in Canada. Meanwhile, much of the country’s Mountain Water Process coffee , is processed in Mexico. That’s pretty much it. Really.
Addison Coffee Roasters only sources water process beans to meet our clients’ decaf needs. It is a tried and true method for retaining as much of that delicious coffee goodness we all know and love. We keep a couple of staples stocked on our shelves, some that are special order, and all of our flavored coffees are available in decaf as well. So, before you judge the decaf, give it a try. It may just open some options for you!
Yes, you CAN have that after dinner coffee if you want!
For more in-depth look at the decaffeination process, here are some really great sources: