By Jochen Beheydt, Seneca Sunrise Coffee
Decaffeinated coffee certainly is the black sheep of the family. Stripped of its most popular feature, coffee without caffeine is often regarded as flavorless and pointless by “real coffee” drinkers. For people who are sensitive to caffeine, however, decaf allows them the coffee experience without heart palpitations. Although, fun fact: decaf coffee may still contain as much as 10% of its original caffeine.
But what is decaf exactly? Decaffeinated coffee beans start out as regular coffee beans. After they are harvested and processed, the caffeine is extracted from them prior to roasting. The most common method uses chemical solvents, such as ethyl acetate or methylene chloride, to remove the caffeine from conventional coffees.
Those solvents are later rinsed or evaporated from the beans prior to packaging so that only trace amounts remain. If—like us—you are not a fan of any solvents in your food, look for Swiss Water Process decaf. This method is commonly used for organic coffee and relies solely on immersion in hot water to extract the caffeine, after which the water is recovered and run through carbon filters to trap the large caffeine molecules for later use in soft drinks and supplements.
Mountain water processing is a similar method, but it puts a tremendous strain on the local water supplies of the rural mountain areas where coffee beans are grown. The wastewater is often dumped back into the waterways, which affects the potability and impacts the environment.
Finally, the most promising method with the least impact on flavor is the supercritical carbon dioxide method: coffee beans are soaked in water and exposed to supercritical CO2, which penetrates the beans as a gas and dissolves 97-99% of the caffeine as a liquid without affecting any of the other molecules.
Good decaf is hard to find. The decaffeination process relies on dissolving caffeine in water or other solvents, which in turn may also remove some of the compounds that are responsible for flavor. The relatively low moisture content in the beans also makes roasting them more challenging. We prefer to roast them slowly to develop flavor and a fuller body.
But there is hope: the recently discovered Charrier varietal (coffea charrieriana) is naturally caffeine-free, and no flavor-altering processing would be required. However, this bean is not yet grown commercially, so for now… decaf it is.
Jochen Beheydt is the co-owner of Seneca Sunrise Coffee in Watkins Glen.