There exists a group of coffee drinkers for whom caffeine is not an option. Some might call them the true believers, the true adherents, since they’re drinking it not to get their morning fix. These true connoisseurs get no buzz, but enjoy only the flavor of their simple cup and the experience it brings with it.
Too bad most decaf coffees aren’t any good. Or, at the very least, they are nowhere close to the same standards of flavor set for regular coffee. Sadly there are a lot of reasons to not like decaf coffee, even beyond the lack of caffeine. It usually isn’t brewed as often as regular due to less demand, so your cup of decaf isn’t going to be as fresh as your coworkers caffeinated cup. Less demand also means that decaf is roasted less often, increasing the odds that the beans sat on a shelf long enough to start tasting a little stale. But even before the beans are roasted there are issues.
First off we need to talk processing. There are a few different ways to get the caffeine out of coffee beans, but all of them face the same problem: how do you remove one aspect of the coffee bean (the caffeine) while keeping everything else (sugars, flavor compounds, proteins, etc.) in place? The answer is, unfortunately you can’t, not perfectly at least, and that means no matter what you process you use, you’re going to be losing a little bit of flavor.
There have been a lot of methods used to create decaf coffee since it was first pioneered by Ludwig Roselius (pictured above) in 1903. Many of them are similar to Roselius’s process, which was to steam the green coffee beans in brine and then use benzene to extract the caffeine. We’ve discovered that benzene is a carcinogen to humans since then (oops), so we’ve had to make some changes. It’s taken quite a few tries, but it seems like we’ve finally found solvents and a process that don’t put human health at risk for the sake of decaffeinated coffee. There are two different solvents used at the moment: methylene chloride and ethyl acetate. Though the processes are slightly different, both of them involve washing the beans with the solvents and then steaming the beans so the solvents evaporate, so there is essentially no trace left of the solvents on the beans.
Essentially no trace is good for most people, but there are some people who still have a reaction to these processes. Luckily there are other ways to do it, the most popular of which is the water process. Essentially it works by soaking green beans in warm water to dissolve the caffeine. This also dissolves all of the sugars and flavor compounds (oops again), but that water is put through a carbon filter sized to take out only the caffeine. The first batch of beans is of no use after that, but they can take another batch of green beans and soak it in the same water—which is saturated with sugars and flavor compounds, but not caffeine—and it will dissolve only the caffeine. Once the beans are removed from the water and dried off, you have decaf coffee beans, with no chemicals used! This is the method that all of our decafs use, and it's only been put into wider use in the past few decades. You can learn more about the process in this video:
No matter what process you use, the beans are going to lose a little bit of flavor with the caffeine. That alone isn’t a huge issue, and though it affects the final product, just as important is the cost of the process. It’s not cheap (especially water process), so in order to make the coffee affordable decaf is usually made from cheaper beans. For coffee lovers who can’t do caffeine it might look like a bleak scene, but with the surge in craft coffee things are changing. Better beans are now being put through the process, as opposed to throwing in the cheapest beans that can be found, and with water process more flavor is retained. There has also been an exciting recent discovery: a naturally decaffeinated coffee strain has been found in the wild. It will take awhile before it reaches the public, but if it ever takes over decaf drinkers will finally have access to unadulterated beans with full flavor. It’s something for decaf drinkers to dream of!