Understanding Caffeine And Why We Remove It
How Are Decaf Coffee Beans Produced
The Sugar Cane Method (Or Colombian Decaf Method)
The Importance Of Good Beans
Quite understandably, not everyone understands decaf. And it's true that it's suffered a pretty poor reputation over the years.
In this post, we try to shed some light on what decaf coffee actually is and how coffee beans are decaffeinated using methods like the Swiss Water and Sugar Cane method so that, if nothing else, you understand how decaf coffee can actually be great if you know what you're looking for.
Understanding Caffeine and Why We Remove It
Caffeine is a natural stimulant most commonly found in coffee, tea, and cacao. While it’s known to affect other parts of the body too, its primary effect is on the brain — influencing how someone thinks and feels. It does this in the following way:
Blocks the receptors in the body for a compound called adenosine, a neurotransmitter that naturally builds up over the day making you relax and feel tired.
Increases the production of adrenaline and dopamine, increasing brain activity and promoting a state of alertness and focus.
This can affect people in different ways. Rather than feeling energetic or focused, caffeine may make someone feel restless or even anxious. And the extent to which caffeine affects you will depend on several things like how much tolerance you’ve built up; your current mood and surroundings; and, your overall mental and physical health.
From personal experience, you’ll probably already know that caffeine doesn’t always have the most positive impact on your body, for instance when you drink too many cups of coffee in a day and feel jittery or have your final brew late in the evening and find it difficult to sleep.
The extent to which caffeine affects you will depend on things like your current mood and surroundings, as well as your overall mental and physical health.
A noticeable energy crash after the effects of caffeine have worn off or inconsistent energy throughout the day are also reasons why people want to wean themselves off coffee — conscious of their reliance on it for productivity and a positive mood.
One reaction to all this is to stop drinking coffee altogether, and while this is justifiable it means you can no longer enjoy the pleasures of coffee (which is obviously a real shame). A less drastic approach for coffee lovers is to find a low or no-caffeine alternative.
Tip: Some coffee species naturally contain less caffeine than others, so you can also search for low caffeine coffee rather than decaf. Also, the type of coffee you drink will impact how much caffeine you consume. For instance, Arabica coffee contains about half the amount of caffeine as Robusta and different brewing methods also produce varying levels of caffeine.
How Are Decaf Coffee Beans Produced?
Decaf beans all start with caffeine in them and are produced in the same way as any other bean grown on farms throughout Colombia and other coffee-growing countries.
The easy part is using water to remove this caffeine when the bean is still green, however, doing this also removes other components too, such as key flavour molecules. If these are not reintroduced properly to the coffee bean, this results in the “washed out” flavour that many dislike about decaf.
When done properly however, the caffeine can be removed from the water and the beans' original flavour molecules can be put back in the coffee.
The Solvent Method
One of the most common decaf methods uses a chemical solvent (methylene chloride or synthetic ethyl acetate) and water combined with a rinsing or soaking process that draws out the caffeine. The solution produced from this is treated (removing the caffeine from it), before the oils and original flavour molecules can be restored to the bean, which reabsorbs its natural characteristics (just without the caffeine).
Direct-Solvent Process - Beans are exposed to the chemical solvent directly
Indirect-Solvent Process - Beans are first soaked in water and then once the water has soaked up all the caffeine, it is separated from the beans to be treated with the solvent, meaning the beans don’t come into contact with chemicals.
Swiss Water and Mountain Water Decaf
The Swiss Water Process doesn’t use chemicals to remove caffeine and is based solely on water and carbon filtration using the following process:
A green coffee extract or “flavour-charged water” is created by immersing coffee beans (not the ones you’re trying to decaffeinate and use) in hot water, producing a solution that contains both caffeine and flavour components from the beans.
After being separated from the beans, the caffeine is then removed from this extract using a carbon filter, rather than chemicals.
The beans you are trying to decaffeinate are then immersed in the green coffee extract to allow the caffeine to diffuse from the bean into the water. This draws out the caffeine but the flavour molecules remain in the bean.
The flavour-charged water then passes through a carbon filter to remove the caffeine again before the water is reintroduced to the beans so it can extract more caffeine, a step that is repeated until you've removed as much caffeine from the beans as possible.
Carbon dioxide can also be used to separate caffeine from coffee. This is done by forcing liquid CO2 into the coffee at high pressure, drawing out only the caffeine and leaving behind the bean’s flavour molecules.
The easy part is using water to remove caffeine; however, doing this also removes other components too, such as key flavour molecules, which must be reintroduced to the coffee for it to taste the same.
Caffeine makes up only a very small part of what coffee is, meaning if the decaffeination process is successful, it can be removed and the overall flavour and character of the coffee can be retained.
Soluble Flavour Components
Can be removed and reintroduced to the coffee bean
Can be removed and discarded from the bean before soluble flavour components are given back to the bean
Will be retained by the bean throughout the immersion or rinsing process
The Sugar Cane Method (or Colombian Decaf Method)
With the Sugar Cane Process, which originated in Colombia, caffeine is extracted from the coffee by immersing it in a by-product of sugar cane (natural ethyl acetate) and water until the caffeine is extracted.
This avoids the need for synthetic chemicals or the excessive temperatures seen in other decaffeination processes, which can radically disrupt a green bean's cellular structure.
In the end, we are left with a coffee that also has an enhanced sweetness that, when roasted, tastes and feels extremely similar to the original caffeinated version of this coffee bean.
The biggest advantage of the sugar cane process is that it can be managed by Colombian producers without the need for exporting beans to other parts of the world, which adds a costly step to the supply chain and adds to the environmental impact of coffee production.
The biggest advantage of this process in our eyes, and the primary reason we only stock single origin Colombian decaf coffee beans that are processed with the sugar cane method, is that it can be managed on Colombian farms or processing stations without the need for exporting beans to other parts of the world such as Mexico, the US, Canada or Germany where decaffeination plants exist.
Combined with the fact that sugar cane is abundant in Colombia, this allows for a much simpler supply chain and tighter control of the costs so that Colombian producers can receive a larger share of the profits.
The Importance of Good Beans
The final thing we have to say is that regardless of the process being used, the quality of decaf coffee is only as good as the beans being used in the first place.
Roasters and coffee companies may have their preference in terms of method, but no matter how effective or natural the process is, if you’re trying to decaffeinate poor quality beans, you’ll still be left with poor quality beans by the end of it all.
In reality, many people have formed their assumptions about decaf without ever having experienced what a truly great bean can taste like after it's bean decaffeinated.
If you’re interested in knowing what this is like, whether you're trying to cut down on your caffeine intake for health reasons or are simply curious, we always try to stock at least one bag of exceptional decaf coffee online and in our shops.