Demystifying Decaf: Brown Sadness Water or Not?

Right let’s take on one of the most hotly debated topics in coffee, decaf. In this article I am not going to preach about the value or not of decaf coffee (promise). Rather I am going to take an open and honest look at the product itself, tell you where it comes from, how it is processed and discuss some of the merits and issues involved.

In short I want to demystify decaf. I’m also going to open up about some of the problems that surround decaf coffee in venues and provide my guide to getting a good decaf out and about.


Ok so before we hit the topic head on, we need to go back to the beginning. As you can gather from many thousands of words I have written in the past (if you are new, please do go check out some of the older articles, some of them aren’t half bad, or so I am told) coffee has been a popular drink for a long, long time. The combination of beautiful flavours and the hit of caffeine is a wonderful thing. 

However, caffeine is, like so many things, easy to overdo. That same jolt of energy, and pleasant buzz that you get from a great coffee, is also doing other things to your body. Now before we veer off into the mists of supposition, rumour, assumption, and new wave holistic thinking, and conclude that coffee is bad for you, I want to say one thing pretty clearly. 

For the vast majority of people a dose of caffeine in their day to day lives, is perfectly safe and indeed arguably quite healthy. 

As ever exceptions exist, but coffee and caffeine are not fundamentally bad for your health. On that note I am done here, if you really want to hear more detailed thoughts from me on coffee, caffeine and health, post up in the comments, you never know I just might be tempted.

The Chemical Composition of Delicious Caffeine

The Art of Removing Caffeine

Given the immense history of innovation and adaptation that goes with coffee, many may be surprised to find out that decaf didn’t happen as an idea until the early 20th century. It’s arrival was also, as in so many cases, an accident…

Let’s meet Herr Ludwig Roselius, the head of Kaffe HAG (a large German coffee company). In 1903 Herr Roselius had a problem on his hands, a shipment of coffee had become exposed to water in transit, this was generally seen to be the end of a coffee cargo, but Herr Roselius elected to try something. Upon experimenting with brewing the ruined beans he discovered that while the caffeine had been leached from the beans, the flavour had not, at least not entirely. 

This was a revelation to Herr Roselius, the fact that caffeine could be extracted from coffee beans was at this point, at least peripherally, understood. Back in 1820 Friedleib Ferdinand Runge a German analytical chemist had established that caffeine was an active component in coffee which could be separated from the beans (actually at the behest of Johan Wolfgang von Goethe, whom you may recognise as a famous poet). But until now, no one had thought to brew coffee beans after the removal of caffeine. 

By 1906 Herr Roselius had refined and patented his new technique for the decaffeination of coffee beans. Decaf coffee for drinkers had arrived. 

How is Coffee Decaffeinated?

So exactly what happens to coffee beans to remove the caffeine? Well the method established by our German coffee entrepreneur still informs much modern commercial decaffeination. 

A mixture of water and acids or bases (this is not the time for a chemistry lesson so I’ll refrain) is used as a solvent to remove caffeine from green (unroasted) coffee beans. Herr Roselius favoured Benzine, but modern research has shown that to be a poor choice for health reasons (it’s a carcinogen), and now alternatives (if you are interested; usually dichloromethane or ethyl acetate) are used for safety. 

There are two main ways to use these solvents, the direct organic solvent method and the indirect organic solvent method. I am once more not getting into the depths of the mechanical and chemical processes here. The key is that both methods use chemical solvent mixes, and both remove caffeine very effectively from coffee beans.

It takes a lot of equipment and skill to remove that Caffeine

Swiss Water DeCaf

Odds are good that a fair few of you readers will have come across Swiss Water, or sometimes just Water Decaffeinated coffees. So what’s the deal? 

Water Decaffeination originated in Switzerland (hence Swiss Water Method) and instead of using chemical additives, uses only water as a solvent. This is done using Green Coffee Extract (GCE), which we get by saturating coffee beans in hot water and passing them through an activated charcoal filter. 

Is Decaf Good?

Once we have GCE we can use it to remove the caffeine from green coffee. The chemistry is again a little complex but in simple terms, by soaking green coffee in GCE the caffeine molecules can be encouraged out of the beans. The process usually involves soaking and filtering repeatedly for anything up to 10 hours, to remove as much caffeine as possible. 

I said I would get there, and here we are. Firstly let me be as clear as I can, there is a compromise in decaf coffee. Despite the fact that great care can be and is taken during the process, the reality is that in removing the caffeine we are going to change the taste of coffee. But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. 

When you aim to decaffeinate coffee you need to consider the beans with some care. Any coffee roaster will tell you that decaf beans are a challenge to roast well. The changes not only to the flavours, but also the chemical makeup of the beans means that they respond differently to heat. This is one reason why many people are under the impression that decaf coffee just tastes bad. This is of course not true, it’s possible to get some great tasting deaf coffee, you just have to work for it.

Why does Decaf get such a bad reputation?

The Corner Cutting Culture

Another reason for the perception of poor tasting decaf lies at the service end, not only is it sometimes a challenge to source a good quality whole bean decaf, in addition those beans need a decent amount of skill and experience to brew well. Sadly the combination of these issues and the lower demand for decaf drinks, means that all too many venues will cut corners when it comes to decaf. 

In my years around coffee I have seen more than a few “solutions” to these issues in venues that are frankly not my favourite thing. 

Some venues will pregrind their decaf coffee en mass in the morning and keep it in a container by the espresso machine, this avoids the cost of installing and maintaining an additional commercial grinder, and it’s frankly awful practice. The reality of preground coffee is that it loses flavour quickly (indeed the degradation starts within minutes of the coffee being ground), so this should never be done. 

In other cases I’ve seen venues use preground coffee “for espresso” purchased from their local wholesaler or supermarket to provide decaf drinks. I cannot express the issues I have with this properly, in effect a venue which does this is selling you the consumer a low cost mass market coffee at the same price as their whole bean coffee of choice. Not really much more to say there. 

However, if you can find a venue that sources a good whole bean decaf coffee, grinds it fresh for service, and prepares it with care, you can get a pretty good cup of decaf coffee. 

Bear’s Decaf Field Guide

When you are considering ordering a decaf coffee, try this little process to ensure you get a good product.

Look to see if the espresso bar you are buying from has a second grinder for their decaf. If you can’t spot it, ask where it is. If they don’t use a separate grinder for decaf beans, then I would advise giving the whole deal a miss, order another drink. 

If they do offer a fresh ground decaf, ask them what the coffee is. If the team at the bar can’t answer that question it’s another red flag. Seriously, any venue worth its salt should know the beans they use and be able to tell customers about them.

So that’s it from me, hopefully a little useful information on what Decaf really is, and some helpful tips on how to make sure you are getting the best of it when you are buying a coffee.

About Bear Essentials Coffee

If you have enjoyed this or any of my writing please check out my Homepage to find out more about me and my work. Follow the blog and if you feel you can, drop a donation to support my work.

Thanks, – Bear

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