The Deal with Decaf
Decaf has often been viewed by coffee drinkers, and those in the coffee industry, as something obsolete, unworthy. For the majority of us, coffee is a drink best consumed in the morning as it wakes us up – so coffee without the caffeine? What’s the point, right?
Historically, roasteries haven’t really given much thought to their decaf offering, and baristas haven’t really given their passion to it either. The result – decaf, served with little effort or understanding in the sourcing, process or brewing, and a bitter, weak and watery brew being served up. I’ve worked in the coffee industry for twelve years and am not too proud to say that I too used to think decaf was a little dreary. Thankfully though, I’ve spent a bit of time understanding the truth behind decaf, and have come to appreciate the fact that first, caffeine isn’t for everyone and second, that there’s definitely value in decent decaf.
Let’s get schooled:
The process of decaffeination has changed rapidly throughout recent years. This is largely due to people’s increased interest in coffee; its sourcing, processing, and its journey to end up at our favourite coffee shops. In order to properly understand decaf, a good place to start is at its inception in 1903 with the two methods of decaffeination that were the most popular: direct and indirect processing.
Direct processing involves a gas, chemical or liquid being placed in direct contact with the coffee seeds in order to remove the caffeine. The seeds are steamed or soaked to open their pores, then placed inside a large airtight tank which is pressurised using chemicals. These chemicals attach themselves to the caffeine molecules and strip away the caffeine when depressurised. The seeds are then rinsed and dried.
Indirect processing involves the coffee seeds being placed in direct contact with pressurized water, which dissolves everything soluble from the seeds – including the flavours and caffeine. This water is removed from the tank and chemically treated. These chemicals then latch onto the caffeine, strip it out, and leave the water full of coffee flavour but with no caffeine. The seeds are then soaked in the flavoured water, and the majority of the flavour is absorbed back into the seeds, which are then dried.
Both of these processing methods typically used Methylene Chloride as the caffeine stripping chemical. In the 1960’s, the use of Methylene Chloride in the decaffeination process came under scrutiny, as this chemical can be toxic when used in large quantities. Though the chemical levels left in decaffeinated coffee were found to be so low they were deemed insignificant, the public were left concerned - decaf had to evolve quickly to remain a viable option.
The Swiss Water Process
In 1979, Coffex entered the decaf market after identifying demand for a commercial decaffeination method that didn’t use a solvent, creating the Swiss Water Process - so-called because it was created in Switzerland. Quickly becoming the preferred method of decaf globally, the Swiss Water Process took learnings from both of its predecessors, placing coffee seeds in a tank full of water flavoured from the previous batch. The coffee flavoured water would only absorb that which it didn’t have – caffeine. The water would then be passed through a charcoal filter and, given that caffeine molecules are larger than flavour molecules, the caffeine would be removed, and the flavour-charged water reused. The Swiss Water Process revolutionised the industry and is widely perceived to be the first example of natural decaffeinated coffee.
At around the same time, the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) was formed as the first worldwide organisation with coffee quality at its core. It’s thanks to the SCA and other organisations like the Cup of Excellence that we are able to better understand what effects the taste of coffee, and grade it to a consistent standard across the industry. It was a truth universally acknowledged that lower quality coffee was typically used for decaf due to the extra costs associated with the process. Using more expensive (and in turn, better quality) coffee would make the final product too expensive and wasn’t seen as a worthwhile expense. After the creation of the SCA, people in coffee felt better able to analyse cup quality and consistency, and ultimately wondered what would happen if good quality coffee was decaffeinated.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, these experiments revealed well-sourced coffee yields very good quality decaf!
Despite the additional cost involved in processing, the fact that a comparable cup of coffee could be achieved with decaf was revolutionary. This experimentation led to the commercialisation of the CO2 method – using pressurised CO2 gas to remove the caffeine, as opposed to chemicals. Since 1990 the Swiss Water Process and the CO2 Method have been the most popular way decaf has been produced, due to their great results and their lack of chemical usage.
As awareness around global commerce, climate change and sustainability increases, the coffee industry needs to look at innovative new ways to move forward. As a product which travels across the world, it’s important that this carbon footprint is reduced wherever possible – which includes the process of decaffeination. Due to the popularity of the Swiss Water Process and the CO2 Method, the majority of global coffee was being transported from its country of origin to either Canada or Germany to be decaffeinated, and was then shipped to roasteries the world over; adding thousands of miles to the journey and significantly increasing the coffee’s carbon footprint.
The Natural Sugarcane Decaf Process (also known as EA Decaf)
In order to try and combat this, DESCAFECOL, a Colombian decaffeination plant established in 1990, partnered with Caravela to offer modern decaffeination at origin with a new method – Natural Sugar Cane Fermentation, a modern version of the Indirect Ethyl Acetate method. Traditionally chemicals like Ethyl Acetate and even CO2 are usually made artificially, but the team in Colombia realised that Ethyl Acetate is naturally produced by fermenting sugarcane - of which there is plenty as it’s a byproduct of the Colombian sugar industry. DESCAFECOL ferment the Sugarcane and capture the Ethyl Acetate gas which is then used to decaffeinate coffee, all at the same facility. With their decaffeination plant located right in the heart of the coffee producing region of Colombia, transportation is minimal. Coupled with the added benefits of using waste product and natural productions, this makes for a truly delicious and more environmentally friendly cup of decaf!
When the opportunity arose a couple of years ago for us to be able to take some of our El Yalcon coffee and have it decaffeinated with DESCAFECOL, we jumped at it. The El Yalcon Sugarcane Decaf has been a welcome treat for our community, and source of pride for us. From the 36 farmers with Caravela and their families, to the DESCAFECOL facility, this coffee embodies our own core values. It’s coffee produced in a way that ensures the sustainability of the planet and our industry, while never sacrificing quality.
Baristas care more about decaf coffee now more than they ever have, and industry professionals put just as much effort into producing a decaf as any other coffee.
So, the question is a personal one: why do we drink coffee? Is it purely because of its ability to wake us up, or do we drink it because we like the experience and the way it tastes? If your answer is the latter, then there’s a world of exciting flavours – without the caffeine – just ready and waiting for you to enjoy.
Want to try our El Yalcon Decaf? It's available here.