Decaf Coffee: Everything You Need to Know

Joshua Allerton
February 12, 2023

Decaf coffee, short for decaffeinated coffee, is coffee that has had the majority of its caffeine removed. The process of removing caffeine from coffee beans is called decaffeination, and it can be done using a variety of methods. The goal of decaffeination is to retain as much of the coffee's flavour and aroma as possible while removing the caffeine. The caffeine content in decaf coffee is typically less than 2% of the original amount, making it a popular option for those who want to enjoy the taste of coffee without the stimulating effects of caffeine.

Origin of Decaf Coffee

Decaffeinated coffee dates back to the early 20th century. In 1903, a German merchant named Ludwig Roselius developed the first decaffeination process after his coffee shipment was accidentally exposed to a chemical solvent, which removed most of the caffeine. Roselius then went on to develop a process for removing caffeine from coffee beans using a combination of water and the chemical benzene.

How popular is decaf coffee?

Today, various methods are used for decaffeination and the choice will depend on the taste preference of the roasters and their clients. Decaf coffee has become increasingly popular in recent years, as more and more people are looking for ways to consume less caffeine while still enjoying the taste of coffee.

According to Statista, decaffeinated coffee sales in the UK have doubled since 2019. This could be down to the COVID-19 pandemic that sparked an increase in personal health. As caffeine is known for increasing anxiety, insomnia, and heart palpitations, a lot of coffee drinkers wanted to change this. Additionally, decaf coffee is also popular among people who want to consume less caffeine for health reasons, such as pregnant women or people with heart problems.

Another reason for the growing popularity of decaf coffee is the improvement in the decaffeination process. As technology and methods have improved, so has the taste and quality of decaffeinated coffee. In the past, decaffeinated coffee was often criticised for lacking flavour and aroma, but today many brands of decaffeinated coffee have a taste that is comparable to regular coffee.

Who is decaf coffee for?

Decaffeinated coffee is for people who want to enjoy the taste and aroma of coffee without the effects of caffeine. This can include people who are:

  • Sensitive to caffeine and experience negative side effects such as jitteriness, anxiety, or difficulty sleeping
  • Pregnant or breastfeeding as caffeine can pass through the placenta and into the breast milk
  • Reducing their caffeine intake for general health reasons
  • Wanting to enjoy a cup of coffee in the evening without disrupting their sleep.

Disclaimer: This is for informational purposes and is not medical advice. Always seek advice from a medical professional - especially if you’re on medication where caffeine can reduce its effectiveness.

Ways to decaffeinate coffee

There are several methods used to decaffeinate coffee, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. The most common methods are:

Chemical Solvents

This is the oldest method of decaffeination. By using chemicals such as methylene chloride or ethyl acetate, the caffeine dissolves from the coffee beans. The beans are first soaked in hot water to open up the pores and then treated with the chemical solvent to remove the caffeine. The solvent is then removed by rinsing or steaming the beans. 

This method is considered to be very effective but there are concerns about the potential health risks associated with consuming coffee that has been treated with chemicals.

Swiss Water Process

Developed in the 1920s, this process uses water to extract the caffeine from the coffee beans. The coffee beans are first soaked in hot water to release the caffeine, and then the water is passed through a carbon filter that removes the caffeine. The resulting water is then used to soak a new batch of coffee beans, repeating the process. 

This method is considered to be a safer and more natural alternative to the chemical solvents used in the first method, but it is also considered less efficient.

Carbon dioxide process 

By the 1980s, we wanted a process that’s safer than using chemicals, but more efficient than water. That’s where carbon dioxide comes to the rescue.

The coffee beans are placed in a pressurised chamber with liquid carbon dioxide, which acts as a solvent to dissolve the caffeine. The caffeine is then separated from the carbon dioxide, which is then recycled and used again. 

This method is considered to be the most efficient and effective method for decaffeinating coffee as it preserves the flavour and aroma of the coffee. It’s the most common form of decaffeination used by roasters today.

Health Benefits of Decaf Coffee

Decaffeinated coffee is believed to have some health benefits due to the fact that it contains most of the beneficial compounds found in regular coffee, such as antioxidants, minerals, and vitamins, but with significantly less caffeine. Here are a few potential health benefits of drinking decaffeinated coffee:

Reduced risk of certain cancers 

Studies have shown that drinking decaffeinated coffee may be associated with a reduced risk of certain types of cancer, such as colon and rectal cancer. Caffeinated coffee can offer similar reduced risk, but not to the same level. 

Improved heart health

Alongside caffeinated coffee, decaf can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and early death. The study published by the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology couldn’t differentiate any advantage for decaf over caffeinated . This is great news for those who love the beverage, but don’t want the buzz.

Reduced risk of type 2 diabetes

Caffeine does hamper insulin sensitivity, but the other benefits of coffee can have the opposite effect. It’s a balancing act. The Nurses Health Study that increasing your coffee intake can reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes by 11%.

For maximum effect, decaffeinated coffee is a great option for people with type 2 diabetes. You still get the benefits of regular coffee but without the negative effects of caffeine on insulin production.

Reduces caffeine withdrawal

Looking to stop caffeine altogether? Scared of getting headaches, becoming irritable and all the other withdrawal symptoms? Decaf has your back.

In a 2023 study, the University of Sydney found that decaf coffee can reduce these symptoms - even if you know it’s decaf. This is when compared to water and caffeinated coffee itself. So, drink to your heart’s desire!

Disclaimer: these benefits are based on observational studies and more research is needed to establish a definitive causal relationship. Additionally, drinking decaffeinated coffee has also been associated with some negative effects, such as acid reflux. 

Always consult with a healthcare professional before making any changes to your diet or caffeine intake.

Does decaf coffee taste the same as regular coffee?

Decaffeinated coffee does not taste exactly the same as regular coffee, as the decaffeination process can affect the taste and aroma of the final product. However, many coffee drinkers describe decaf coffee to have a milder taste and less aroma. 

The decaffeination process can remove some of the flavour compounds that give regular coffee its unique taste. Additionally, different decaffeination methods may result in different taste profiles. For example, the Swiss Water Process is considered to produce decaffeinated coffee that tastes the most similar to regular coffee, while the use of chemical solvents can leave a distinct taste.

The quality of the coffee beans used in the decaffeination process can also affect the taste. Your issue may be with the bean, not the decaffeination itself. For best results, look for beans from a roaster that you enjoy and see if they do a decaffeinated version.

Tips on brewing the best-tasting decaf coffee

Brewing decaf coffee is no different than regular coffee. It’s the same process with many methods to choose from. Simply swap the beans in any recipe for decaffeination and you’ll be good to go.

Regardless, here are some tips on how the brew best-tasting decaffeinated coffee:

  1. Use fresh, high-quality decaffeinated coffee beans that have been stored properly to ensure the best taste.
  2. Use the right grind.
  3. Use the right water temperature. The ideal water temperature for brewing coffee is between 195-205°F (90-96°C). Water that is too hot can burn the coffee and result in a bitter taste, while water that is too cool can result in a weak brew.
  4. Keep your equipment clean. A buildup of oils and minerals in your coffee maker or French press can affect the taste of your coffee. Regularly cleaning your equipment will help to ensure a clean and fresh taste.
  5. Store it properly. Once your coffee is brewed, store it in an airtight container and in a cool, dark place to keep it fresh.

Choosing the right decaf coffee beans

We always recommend grabbing a decaffeinated version of your favourite bean from your favourite roaster. If you’re ready to expand your horizons, here’s are a few tips to help:

Decaffeination method

As explained earlier, there are several methods used to decaffeinate coffee beans, including. Each method has its own advantages and disadvantages, so it's important to research the different methods and choose one that aligns with your preferences and budget. Keep in mind that the decaffeination process can impact the taste of the coffee, so you might want to try different methods to find the one you like the most.

Quality of beans 

Regardless of the decaffeination method used, it's important to choose high-quality coffee beans. Look for beans that are sourced from regions known for producing high-quality coffee, such as Colombia, Ethiopia or Brazil.

Budget

Decaffeinated coffee beans can be more expensive than regular coffee beans, so it's important to consider your budget when choosing decaffeinated coffee beans.

Ultimately, the best way to choose the right decaffeinated coffee beans is to try a few different types and compare the taste, quality, and price.

Further reading and research

If you're looking to do more research on decaffeinated coffee, here are some suggestions for further reading:

  1. Coffee Science: Volume 1: Chemistry by Clarke & MacRae explores the chemistry of coffee, including the decaffeination process and the impact of decaffeination on the taste and quality of coffee.
  2. Swiss Decaf Coffee Process by Allegro Coffee Roasters is a quick overview of the decaffeination process.

How is Coffee Decaffeinated podcast episode by Chemistry For Your Life delves deeper into the different processes.

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