I once worked with a very passionate barista who had a tattoo of an espresso portafilter with the words “death to decaf” inked underneath. I thought it was pretty funny, especially because I had always seen decaf as pointless and inferior to regular coffee. Over time, however, my opinions changed.
When my wife--who loves coffee--was pregnant with our first child, she constantly craved soy lattes but was avoiding caffeine. It was during this time that I started thinking about the need for good decaf. I made my wife many decaf lattes during those nine months, and she was one happy mama. She later told me that getting to indulge in the comforts of coffee without having to worry about potential caffeine risks really raised her spirits throughout the pregnancy. Through this experience, I realized that many people love the taste of coffee but could do without the caffeine--whether that’s due to pregnancy, health issues, or simply because caffeine keeps them up at night (like it does for me). Regardless, I think decaf should be taken more seriously.
Recently, I have been getting questions about how decaf is processed and which process is the best. To start, the decaffeination process happens well before the beans are roasted, while still in their raw green form. Two of the most typical processes involve soaking the beans in water, and then adding a solvent like methylene chloride or ethyl acetate. These solvents remove the caffeine from coffee while trying to preserve the inherent coffee flavors for those beans. While using methylene chloride or ethyl acetate in the decaffeination process is not considered harmful when drinking these coffees, the waste that comes from these products can be detrimental to the environment.
A third decaffeination process, called the Carbon Dioxide Method, uses liquid CO2 and pressure to extract and remove caffeine. Because of the costs associated with the Carbon Dioxide Method, it is mostly used for larger quantity, commercial grade coffees.
The fourth and final method for decaffeination was developed in Switzerland and is appropriately called the Swiss Water Process. This method uses the solubility of water and an activated charcoal filter to extract the caffeine. In the Swiss Water Process, the coffee is added to very hot water to remove the caffeine from the beans. The water then passes through the charcoal filter, which catches the caffeine while leaving the flavor and coffee oils in the water. The very first batch of beans is then discarded, but the water with the oils and flavors is saved for the second batch. (Using the flavored water from the previous batch allows the next batch to retain its inherent coffee oils and flavors while still removing the caffeine.)
Based on the above, we at Wander Coffee prefer and exclusively use Swiss Water Process decaf because of the minimal impact on the environment, especially when compared to the solvent based decaffeination processes. We would encourage other decaf drinkers to keep in mind the environmental impact of decaffeination methods—and to seek out Swiss Water Process decaf whenever possible. (You can pick up a bag of our decaf at The Cupboard, the Fort Collins Food Co-Op, Big Hollow Co-Op, or in our online store.) Remember that decaf coffee isn’t just the ugly sibling to regular coffee; it can be quite tasty if roasted correctly and a great alternative for folks who can’t have—or don’t want—caffeine. Feel free to reach out if you have any questions about our decaf offerings!