Everything You've Ever Wanted to Know About Decaffeinated Coffee Beans
Decaffeination is the process of removing caffeine from something. In the context of coffee, it usually means removing caffeine from the beans themselves. However, a common conception is that decaf means there is no caffeine at all. This usually isn't true. In fact, it's almost impossible to remove all of the caffeine from a coffee bean and the FDA only requires you to remove 97% of the original caffeine in order for it to be considered decaffeinated.
But why do people drink decaffeinated coffee in the first place? Does it affect the overall taste or quality of the coffee? And are there any downsides or concerns that you should keep in mind when drinking decaffeinated coffee? We'll be covering many of these considerations in this post.
What exactly is decaffeinated coffee?
Decaffeinated coffee, often known as just decaf, is coffee that has had at least 97% of its caffeine content removed. There are a number of ways to remove caffeine from coffee. Many of these methods include using water, organic solvents, or even carbon dioxide.
Using a solvent
There are two main solvents that are used to remove the caffeine content from coffee beans; methylene chloride and ethyl acetate.
Methylene chloride is considered to be safe for use in coffee decaffeination. It is a colourless liquid chlorinated hydrocarbon and is often used in paint removers, degreasing, and even in the manufacturing of pharmaceuticals. This is how a vast majority of decaffeinated coffee beans are made While it's safe, it's not considered the most natural way to decaffeinate beans and there are chemicals involved that can make people anxious about drinking it.
On the other hand, ethyl acetate is a natural fruit ether that is often made from acetic acid. It has a distinct sweet smell and can sometimes be found in nail polish remover. The caffeine molecules in coffee are essentially bonded to the ethyl acetate, effectively removing it from the beans. Ethyl acetate can often be produced by fermenting sugarcane, making it 100% natural and often free from any chemicals.
However, while ethyl acetate is natural, it often needs to be produced synthetically in order to have a large enough volume of it to be used on a big scale. As such, decaffeinated coffee beans may not be completely natural even if the producer uses ethyl acetate. Unfortunately, it also changes the characteristics of the coffee by adding a fruit touch. This may be preferable to some, but many roasters would prefer to keep the flavour of the bean untouched which is why they stay away from using ethyl acetate.
One method of decaffeination involves soaking coffee beans in water before being blasted with liquid carbon dioxide in a large extractor. The carbon dioxide then binds to the coffee beans, effectively drawing them out. The caffeine is then isolated into another chamber, leaving decaffeinated coffee beans.
Much like with ethyl acetate, using carbon dioxide to decaffeinate coffee beans is natural since it occurs in the world around us. However, getting enough carbon dioxide to use commercially in this use case is difficult and it's often distilled from the industrial byproduct of other processes. Thankfully, it doesn't change the flavour of the coffee bean which is always a bonus.
However, this method is often considered the most expensive and isn't the most practical to use due to a large amount of carbon dioxide required. As such, there are only a couple of brands that will use this method and it's typically businesses that can afford to mass produce decaffeinated coffee beans that will consider it.
The Swiss Water decaffeination method
Perhaps one of the most popular methods of removing caffeine from coffee beans is the Swiss Water process. This requires water, time, and the right temperature in order to remove the caffeine. As you can imagine, this doesn't require any chemical solvents in order to achieve, and everything is natural.
The problem with other "natural" methods of decaffeination
There's also the added benefit that the products used in the decaffeination process do not need to be produced on a mass scale. This is one of the main differences between the Swiss Water method and both the carbon dioxide and ethyl acetate methods.
While those are also natural methods, mass-producing ethyl acetate and carbon dioxide often mean using byproducts from other industrial processes or, in the case of ethyl acetate, must be partially produced synthetically. Producing commercial carbon dioxide often means distilling it from the air, but it can be an inefficient and expensive process.
In other words, decaffeinated coffee beans can be made with natural processes, but producing enough of the compounds required for the process relies on manufacturing processes that can be harmful to the environment.
Water is the greenest solvent
The greenest solvent is water and it's also known as the "universal solvent" due to its ability to dissolve more substances than other liquids. Due to water's chemical composition and physical attributes, it's effective at removing caffeine from coffee beans and is the key to creating all-natural and environmentally-friendly decaffeinated coffee beans.
This means that there are absolutely no added chemical solvents or other compounds when using the Swiss Water method. It can be certified as both organic and Kosher, and it is truly a chemical-free process that doesn't change the taste of the coffee at all. This is why Swiss Water is one of the most popular ways to decaffeinate coffee both from an environmental standpoint but also from a quality perspective.
How does the Swiss Water process work?
Swiss Water relies on the solubility of caffeine in order to remove it from unroasted coffee beans. The decaffeination process begins with raw green coffee beans being soaked in hot water. This essentially dissolves the caffeine, but there's a catch; it can also dissolve other compounds in coffee such as sugars. This is because sugar is also water-soluble, meaning it can lead to undesirable changes in the taste of the coffee if the process isn't refined.
To avoid altering the taste of the coffee, the green coffee beans are soaked in multiple stages.
After the first soaking process, the water is passed through a charcoal filter. This helps to trap the large caffeine molecules which are left behind while the sugars, oils, and other elements in the coffee are free to pass through. This creates what's known as a green coffee extract. This is then used to soak the next batch of green beans. Since the extract contains all of the sugars and other compounds that we want to keep in the coffee, only the caffeine is removed from the beans while the other compounds are left untouched.
The result is decaffeinated coffee beans that are completely free from any chemical solvents. They retain the same flavours as if they were roasted without the process, and there is almost no waste being produced because the green coffee extract is reused for subsequent batches of coffee. This is our current prefered method, and we find the flavours retain to be the best.
Paying fair prices for decaffeinated coffee beans
When it comes to coffee, there's a huge difference between speciality roasters and large-scale producers. Much like anything else that is produced on a mass scale, chemical and artificial processes are often introduced to speed things up and make products in large batches. In addition, the larger the scale, the more likely there are unethical processes taking place in order to produce the volume that the company expects to sell.
When it comes to speciality roasters such as Horsham, we opt to produce ethical products that are both affordable and made with care and attention. We're not a large-scale producer that relies on unethical methods and chemical processes in order to make our decaffeinated coffee beans. Instead, our Horsham Organic Decaf Coffee is made with love, care, and a lot of attention because it's made in much smaller batches.
As speciality roasters, we have a lot more control over the process that goes into our decaffeinated coffee beans. We ensure that we source our raw green coffee beans from sustainable and ethical sources, and the Swiss Water process is fine-tuned to produce the perfect decaffeinated coffee beans that are true to the original flavour profile. We couldn't do this without the help of DR Wakefield are organise the entire process. From a coffee roasting perspective, we ensure that decaffeinated coffee is roasted on our Loring to the same high standard of quality control that we apply to all our other coffees.
Being able to control the entire process is essential to the end result of our beans. It allows us to control the flavour, it gives our customers peace of mind knowing that we source ethical beans, and it ensures that chemicals do not touch our organic decaffeinated coffee beans. So while our beans may be more expensive than the average decaf coffee that you'll find in a supermarket, we take extra care at every step of the production process to guarantee a high-quality product that our customers will love.
So if you're looking to buy high-quality decaffeinated coffee beans that are completely natural, free from chemicals, and ethically sourced, look no further than our signature organic decaf coffee at Horsham Coffee Roaster.