For quite some time, decaf coffee has had a bad reputation for tasting pretty unpleasant. And that’s a shame considering that around 12% of all coffee consumed worldwide is decaf coffee. Do you know that strange, often chemically taste found in many cheaper decaf coffees?
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They really make a cup of decaf feel like a second-best sort of option. These negative flavors are a side effect of the decaffeination process. But it doesn’t have to be this way! Decaf coffee has come a long way in recent years — so much so that it is possible to have a truly delicious cup of decaf coffee that is comparable to regular coffee.
What Is Decaf Coffee
Decaf coffee begins its life in the same way that any other tasty coffee does. It is grown, harvested, processed, dried, and shipped just like normal. But instead of being shipped directly to a coffee roaster where it will be roasted and sold as roasted coffee beans, it is sent to a processing facility where it will undergo the decaffeination process.
While there are a few different methods of decaffeination (which we’ll look into below), each method has the same goal — to remove as much of the caffeine from the raw, green coffee beans as possible.
Once the caffeine has been successfully removed, the coffee is then re-dried and sent out to the coffee roaster, where the beans will be roasted, packed, and sold as decaf coffee beans, ready to brew.
Benefits of Drinking Decaf Coffee
Decaf coffee has pretty much all the benefits of regular coffee — just minus the caffeine. Those good-for-you antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals in regular coffee remain largely intact after the decaffeination process is complete. But what else is a good old cup of decaf good for?
Less Caffeine for Those Who Are Intolerant to It
Those of us who are sensitive to caffeine don’t need to give up that absolute best part of the day — the morning coffee. Just make the simple switch over to decaf coffee. Decaf coffee is brewed in the same way we would brew its caffeinated sister, so you don’t need any extra equipment or ingredients.
To earn its name, a decaf coffee needs to have at least 97% of its original caffeine removed. This means that decaf coffee isn’t completely caffeine-free, so if you drink enough, you will still get a little of that caffeine buzz.
You Can Drink a Cup of Coffee Right Before Bed
Brewing a cup of coffee right before going to bed feels super weird…But as long as that cup of coffee is decaf, you won’t miss a wink!
A cup of decaf coffee contains between 2 and 7mg of caffeine. When compared to a regular cup of coffee, weighing in at around 100mg of caffeine, that is a huge reduction. Most people who aren’t too sensitive won’t be affected a whole lot by this small amount of caffeine, meaning that they can brew a delicious, sweet cup of Colombian without losing any sleep as a result.
How Does Decaf Coffee Work
Decaf coffee is grown, harvested, processed, and shipped in the same way that normal, delicious, caffeinated coffee is. But instead of the coffee being shipped directly to a coffee roaster, the green coffee is sent to a processing facility to undergo decaffeination. Once the coffee has arrived at the decaf processing facility, things start to get a little tricky…
To remove the caffeine from coffee beans, there are a few different methods that can be used. We’ll get into more details of each in the section below, but just briefly, the methods fall into two different camps — solvent-based and non-solvent based.
Both processes remove the caffeine from the green coffee by using either a solvent, such as Ethyl Acetate or by using water or carbon dioxide. The latter two options are non-solvent based decaf methods.
In opposition to its name, decaf coffee isn’t actually 100% caffeine-free. Though a significant amount of caffeine is removed, around 97%, there is a small amount of up to 3% that remains in the coffee after processing.
Many coffee manufacturers also offer decaf in the smooth and mild flavor of instant coffee.
Pros and Cons of Drinking Decaf Coffee
- You won’t lose any sleep if you drink a cup of decaf right before going to bed.
- Great for those who are sensitive to caffeine but love the taste of the coffee.
- When done well, decaf coffee can be as delicious as regular coffee.
- When not done well, decaf coffee can contain some unpleasant flavors.
- If a solvent-based process is used, there will be a trace amount of the chemical remaining on the green coffee.
Methods of Producing Decaf Coffee
There are two main camps when it comes to removing the caffeine from coffee — solvent-based and non-solvent based.
If we were to compare the two options, most would agree that the non-solvent techniques, such as the swiss water process and the carbon dioxide method, produce, by far, a more natural tasting end product. Solvent-based processes use chemicals, some of which are naturally occurring in small amounts in various fruits but do leave a noticeable ‘chemical’ taste on the coffee.
Direct Solvent Technique
Caffeine dissolves in water. But unfortunately, so do many other delicious flavor compounds. The idea behind the direct solvent technique is to wash the beans in a chemical that dissolves caffeine but leaves all of the good tasting stuff behind.
First, the green coffee beans are steamed to open up their pores, then they are rinsed with a solvent — usually either Dichloromethane or Ethyl Acetate, for around 10 hours. This is done in order to selectively remove the caffeine molecules only (or as close to just the caffeine as possible). After this treatment, the beans are then rinsed to remove any of the solvents that remain still on the beans.
Swiss Water Process
Pioneered in Switzerland in the 1930s, the Swiss water process is currently the most popular decaf option chosen by specialty coffee roasters across the globe. Rather than using a solvent to remove the caffeine from the raw green coffee beans, the Swiss water process uses water and does so in quite a cool way.
Water and green coffee are combined together in a big vat — sort of like making a huge French press with green coffee. The caffeine eventually dissolves into the water, but so do the flavors of the coffee. But that’s ok this time!
The water is then drained through a filter where the caffeine molecules are collected, but the delicious coffee flavors and oils are let through. This resulting tank of caffeine-free water is known as GCE or green coffee extract.
The green coffee beans that were used, by this point, are pretty bland and flavorless, so they are discarded, and a new, fresh lot of green coffee beans are added to the tank.
The GCE is then added to the fresh green coffee. This time what happens is because the GCE is already full of flavor compounds but contains no caffeine molecules; it can dissolve the caffeine, but far less of the flavor compounds (because it is already packed full of them). This process is known as osmosis.
This process is done a few more times until the GCE is so full of flavor compounds that it literally can’t take any more. It is full. Now this GCE can be used many times, added to different green coffee beans, and will only be able to dissolve the caffeine molecules from the coffee, leaving the flavor compounds untouched. Pretty clever, huh?
The Swiss water process leaves the green coffee around 99% caffeine-free.
The carbon dioxide method, also known by its scientific name, ‘supercritical carbon dioxide extraction,’ is a method in which carbon dioxide gas is pressurized and passed through water-soaked green coffee. As the carbon dioxide does this, it collects the caffeine molecules on its way, leaving all of the super tasty, delicious flavor compounds behind. That’s a pretty decent summary of what happens in the carbon dioxide method, but let’s take a look in a little more detail.
At around 1070 PSI, carbon dioxide gas becomes what is known as supercritical — meaning it begins behaving somewhat like a liquid. This extremely highly pressurized C02 is pushed through water-soaked green coffee beans and, on its one-way trip though, picks up all of the caffeine molecules while leaving everything else alone. The C02 is then removed from the tank and depressurized, turned back into a gas, and can be used again. Science!
How to Brew Decaf Coffee
We all know that coffee beans can be brewed in a variety of different ways, and the more ways you know how to brew, the better. You could learn to make coffee in a percolator, but in this step-by-step guide, we’re going to learn how to brew a pour-over using Hario’s classic V60 coffee maker.
For those who aren’t in the know, a pour-over is an infusion coffee brewing method in which water is poured over a bed of ground coffee. The resulting beverage is sweet, clean, and, when done right, absolutely delicious!
Note: If you plan on using decaf K-cups as your brew method, here are a few tips:
- Make sure your machine is clean! Keeping your Keurig clean will ensure you make the tastiest coffee possible.
- Don’t use K-cups after the expiration date. While expired K-cups might not make you ill, they might taste pretty awful!
- Hot water
- 37 grams of your favorite decaf coffee
- V60 02 coffee maker
- V60 02 paper filters
- Burr coffee grinder
- Gooseneck kettle (optional)
- Scales (optional)
Step 1 — Preheat the V60
First, take a filter, fold it down the line, and place it into the V60. Now place the V60 on the carafe and pour hot water through it. Ensure you soak the entire filter thoroughly. This not only preheats the V60, but it also rinses out any paper taste that may be in the filter.
Step 2 — Grind the coffee
Next, we’ll grind the coffee. Weigh out about 37g of coffee using a set of scales and grind at a medium setting — around the same texture as table salt. If you don’t have scales, that’s ok— a tablespoon holds around 5g of coffee, so you can estimate that about 7- 7.5 tablespoons will give you 37g. Ensure that your water is boiled and ready to go.
Step 3 — Bloom
Transfer the ground coffee to the V60 and give it a little shake to level out the brew bed. Place the carafe and the V60 onto the scales and press tare. Now we’re ready to brew. Press start on the timer and quickly pour 120g of water evenly over the ground coffee, using the gooseneck kettle. Now pick up the V60 and swirl the coffee and water mixture (the slurry). This swirl will make sure all the coffee gets nice and wet. This is called the bloom. Blooming will help release C02, which will ensure the rest of the brew goes smoothly. We will let the coffee bloom for about 40 seconds.
Step 4 — Pour
Once the timer reads 40-45 seconds, we’ll begin the main pour. The great thing about this recipe, other than the fact that it produces delicious tasting coffee, is that it is super easy. Pour the water slowly, starting in the middle, and circling outward. Rinse any coffee off the walls of the filter, then circle your way back to the middle. Repeat this pattern until you’ve finished pouring the 600g of water, which should be completed by around 2:30 on the timer. Once you’ve reached the 600g target, pick up the V60, and give it one more swirl. This will level out the brew bed and ensure proper drainage.
Step 5 — Serve
Finally, give your brewed coffee a stir and pour your coffee in a stainless steel mug, your favorite ceramic, or if you’re on the go, into the mug portion of your insulated French press travel mug and enjoy your delicious coffee, minus the caffeine shakes!
Does More Spending Mean More Quality
When it comes to the best Keurig hot chocolate K-cups, or even the best premium French press coffee grinder, spending more will almost definitely buy you a better, higher quality product. But is the same thing true for decaf coffee?
When it comes to coffee, and especially decaf coffee, we can pay a higher price for a couple of reasons. One of the reasons a decaf coffee might be expensive is thanks to the brand that is written on the bag. Certain companies charge an arm and a leg for a 250g bag of coffee. Does this mean the coffee is great? Absolutely not! It really depends on the coffee roaster and the quality of the green coffee that they chose to decaffeinate and roast.
On the other hand, is the best tasting decaf coffee available in the world more expensive than a regular, store-bought one? Definitely.
While an expensive coffee won’t always be good, a really cheap coffee will rarely be delicious. Growing, processing, sourcing, and roasting delicious coffee isn’t cheap, and as the old saying goes, ‘you get what you pay for’!
Do’s and Don’ts With Decaf Coffee
- Do try brewing decaf coffee in different ways and with different brewers. A customizable siphon coffee maker might bring out completely different flavors in a coffee than a V60 will.
- Do try the different decaffeination methods for yourself and see which you like the best. Each method tastes different.
- Don’t buy pre-ground decaf coffee if you can avoid it. Grinding coffee fresh really brings out its best flavors.
- Don’t settle with poor quality, bad tasting decaf. Decaf can be delicious! It just often isn’t because many manufacturers and roasters put far less effort into their decaf than they do their regular caffeinated coffee.
FAQ About Decaf Coffee
What is the best brand of decaf coffee?
Luna coffee out of Canada has a delicious decaf coffee that is decaffeinated via the swiss water process. With tasting notes of berries, stewed fruits, and butterscotch, who could resist giving it a try? In the USA, give Stumptown coffee roasters ‘Trapper Creek’ decaf a try, and for those in the UK, Square Mile coffee roasters have a decaf that is processed using the carbon dioxide method.
Which brand of decaf coffee has the least caffeine?
Most coffee processed using the swiss water method, including those roasted by Luna and Stumptown, are said to be 99% caffeine-free.
How much caffeine is there in a decaf coffee?
The USDA requires any decaf coffee to be at least 97% caffeine-free. This means that while decaf coffee has had a large portion of its caffeine removed, there is still between 2 and 7mg of it remaining after processing. This, of course, depends on the processing method used.
Is the taste between decaf and non-decaf different?
While the gap between decaf and non-decaf coffee is getting smaller, the two do taste different. Sometimes the difference is large, and other times it is small. Sometimes the difference is a bad thing, while other times, it isn’t. You really need to just give a few decaf coffees a try— there are quite a few good ones around, so you’re bound to find one you like. If on the off chance you can’t find a decent cup of decaf, you can always add in a dash of sugar-free syrup for coffee. This might cover up some of the unwanted flavors of a not-so-well processed decaf.
Is decaf coffee bad for you or good?
It’s no secret that low acid coffee is good for your teeth, but does decaf share the same kind of health benefits? Decaf coffee contains basically all of the same things that a caffeinated coffee does, minus the caffeine. This means that all the minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants that make coffee good for you remain present in decaf.
Flavorless, bitter-tasting decaf coffee is a thing of the past. No longer is decaf just a make-do drink when it’s too late in the day to have a regular coffee. The technology is being constantly refined, and the gap between decaf and regular coffee is getting smaller by the day. So give one of these picks for the best decaf coffees a try! You might be surprised that you’re really drinking decaf!
Photos from: Valentyn_Volkov / depositphotos.com, papa42 / depositphotos.com, Baloncici / depositphotos.com and VadimVasenin / depositphotos.com.