Are all decaf created equal?
How have the beans been decaffeinated and what does that do to them and their flavour?
If you’ve read any of our other blogs or posts or stopped into The Roaster to have a chat with The Bearded Brewer Team, then the answer to this question may be super obvious to you by now. You’re probably starting to pick up on the fact that there are so many factors and variables that go into producing an excellent coffee bean, and even after you’ve produced that beautiful little bean, there are still a few stages to go from bean to cup where poor handling, storage or preparation can unravel all that hard work.
I want to talk to you here about a really important factor when it comes to decaf coffee – How have the beans been decaffeinated and what does that do to them and their flavour?
You’d be forgiven for falling into the category of coffee drinkers who flat out refuse to drink decaf, claiming that it’s not ‘real coffee’, that it tastes awful, that you might as well just drink tea instead. We hear you! And truth be told, that was my opinion for many years. That is, until I had good decaf. That’s right, there are definitely good, average and terrible decaf coffees out there in the world and unfortunately, the majority of decaf in the past has been the cheap, easy to produce and nasty tasting type. Yuck. But I’m here to tell you that those days are over for those that source good beans, like you lovely folks, from people who really love coffee, even the decaf kind…
Have you ever wondered, ‘how do they even get the caffeine out?’, and then proceeded to order your coffee, forget about this important little curiosity and go on your merry way? I did, many times, in my younger years, until I finally took the time to ask and to actually find out more. There are three main processes for producing decaf coffee, and I’ll run through them, and explain why they aren’t all equal in the paragraphs below.
First though, it’s important to note that none of these processes produce completely caffeine free beans. That’s right, there’s still a little caffeine in your decaf. But this amount is lowered to somewhere between 6% and <1%, depending on the beans, the process used and a few other little variables. The point is, that decaf isn’t technically no-caff, but it is definitely much-much-lower-caff, to a level where even the most sensitive person is unlikely to be affected by a single cup of decaf in their day.
Decaf beans aren’t a special type of bean, like shiraz vs chardonnay grapes in winemaking, although you’d be forgiven for assuming this, many people do! Decaf beans start out their life like any other coffee bean, with a degree of caffeine in them. They are only considered ‘decaf beans’ after undergoing one of three process. These processes are Swiss Water, C02 and a Solvent Process, whether direct or indirect, and sometimes referred to as a Chemical Process. All decaffeinating processes occur prior to roasting, on beans in their green state.
If you’ve never seen green beans (pre roasted beans), head to our social media feeds or ask to see a handful next time you’re in The Roastery.
Solvent Processes involve the use of powerful chemicals, the most common of which are methylene chloride or ethyl acetate. These are chemicals used in industrial processes like paint stripping, pharmaceutical manufacturing and metal degreasing. While that may sound scary, the amounts left in your coffee cup are estimated to be immeasurably low, as these chemicals are volatile, have low burn temperatures and any residual amounts in coffee beans are expected to burn off in the roasting and brewing processed, both of which happen at temperatures higher than these chemicals can withstand. When ethyl acetate is used, some producers will label these beans as ‘naturally decaffeinated’, and this is based on the fact that low levels of ethyl acetate are found in some plants and ripening fruits, however, the process of obtaining ‘natural’ ethyl acetate would be incredible arduous and expensive and as such the chemical used in decaffeination is generally a synthetic chemical.
In a Solvent Process, the beans are soaked or steamed in hot water to open up their pores before being introduced to the chosen chemical, which will dissolve most of the caffeine, before being separated from the beans. This process is relatively quick and cheap and is a very commonly used process. The major drawbacks of this are that the water and chemicals don’t just dissolve the caffeine, they also remove other water-soluble compounds from the 1000+ chemical compounds found in coffee beans. This may include oils and flavours, which effect the beans profile when it comes out, ready for roasting. This can leave the beans falling flat or even tasting like chemicals, more than coffee.
The next process is a C02 Process. In this process, green beans are soaked and then introduced to pressurised, liquid C02, which acts selectively on the caffeine molecules, leaving much of the other chemicals in the coffee beans alone. Because of the cost involved with this process, it is generally used to decaffeinate large quantities of coffee beans and this means that the beans you will generally see after they’ve undergone this process are the big brand beans that you’ll find in large quantities on supermarket shelves. It’s unlikely that you will find these beans on the shelves of your favourite, local, boutique coffee roaster.
The final process, the Swiss Water Process, developed in Switzerland in the 1930’s and made more commercially available in the 1980’s. This process is almost exclusively used for organic coffee beans and beans that have undergone this process will be labelled as ‘Swiss Water’.
In this process, a batch of green beans are soaked in hot water, which dissolves the caffeine as well as some of the other chemical compounds that we spoke about in the solvent process. This water is then drawn off the beans and passed through an activated charcoal, or carbon, filter. The filter allows smaller molecules with flavours and oils to pass through, while capturing the caffeine molecules. At this point you now have green, caffeine free beans with no flavour in one hand, and caffeine free, flavour filled water in the other – GCE (Green Coffee Extract). This first lot of beans are then discarded. Next, the process is repeated, but this time the water used is the GCE. This means that the water can dissolve and capture the caffeine from the new batch of beans, but because it is already laden with the flavour and oil molecules, these stay in the new batch of green beans. This time when the process is finished, after filtering the GCE, you are left with green, caffeine free beans that have their original oils and flavours in one hand and the GCE in the other, ready to be used on a new batch of green beans.
The Swiss Water Process doesn’t use added chemicals and is generally used for organic beans as the process itself is organic, which doesn’t change the organic status of the beans that undergo this process. While no decaffeination process it really ‘natural’, as these processes do not occur naturally, without human intervention, I believe that the Swiss Water Process is the process we should all look for when purchasing or drinking decaf coffee. Because of the gentler process, these beans tend to hold on to their rich flavours and profiles, truly showcasing their origins and the subtleties that their growing conditions have imparted to them.
The last important factor is the roasting process. After the green beans have been through one of the above processes, they don’t tend to act like other beans. While roasters find that beans react differently based on their origin, processing and age, decaf beans are a different beast altogether. They tend to have a lower moisture content, meaning they roast faster, or at a lower temperature, and they’ve already been subjected to hot water in a decaffeination process. This means that the roaster needs to pay attention and put some effort and love into roasting awesome decaf beans. I might be a little biased here, but I do believe that The Bearded Brewer Roaster really do fit this description.
Many people say that decaf has a metallic, or chemical flavour and aftertaste. I think after reading the above information you can understand why this generally occurs. Beans having undergone a Solvent Process are missing their individual flavours and tend to come out tasting very much alike, removing the value of sourcing beans from a particular region. Beans that undergo the C02 Process are typically mass produced, made with the bottom line in mind, rather than producing the highest quality end product.
For this reason, I would like to encourage you to give decaf a second chance. If you’re someone who is particularly sensitive to caffeine this should be some of the best news you’ve read all week. If you can find a roaster or retailer near you that stocks quality, Swiss Water beans, then you may be in luck! All you have to do is keep an eye out and ask a few important questions to ensure the decaf beans you’re considering will be bursting with flavour and goodness, rather than leaving you with a bitter taste in your mouth, both literally and metaphorically.
Next time you’re buying beans or stopping in at The Roastery for a cup of joe, consider giving decaf a go. The current decaf offering from The Bearded Brewer is a Mexican Chiapas Mountain Swiss Water Decaf bean. This single origin bean offers chocolate and caramel aromas, a full body with good acidity, balanced with a medium sweetness and will leave you with a smooth, nutty finish on your palate.
Whether you’re looking to cut down on your caffeine, you want a good coffee option for late in the day that won’t keep you up all night, or you’re simple open to new things and ready to try a new bean, give a good decaf a go next time you get the chance. Hopefully I’ve given you a better understanding here, as well as some insights into how to spot a good decaf next time you’re on the lookout.
Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed this one and found it interesting and informative, helping to expand your coffee horizons. If you did enjoy it then don’t forget to share the link with friends and family. If you want to stay up to date with all things coffee, don’t forget to connect with The Bearded Brewer Team online through Facebook or Instagram too.