Don’t you feel a little bad for decaf coffee? The popular conception of it just isn’t very flattering. At best, it’s considered a less-than-cool option. At worst, it’s sometimes scorned by “hardcore” coffee enthusiasts - did you know “Death Before Decaf” tattoos are a thing? And there's all kind of merchandise out there slamming decaf's very existence and getting all judgmental towards the people who drink it.
So, what did decaf ever do earn this coffee bullying? All it has ever done is provide an alternative for those who want the pleasure of coffee without caffeine. There are lots of reasons people can’t have or don’t want caffeine, and we at HubBub respect every last one of them.
But what’s the deal with decaf? Why is it sometimes not as tasty as regular coffee. Why?!
A lot of it has to do with the decaffeination process. All coffee is processed in one way or another in its journey from ripened coffee cherry to warm, fragrant coffee in your cup. But decaf must undergo additional processing to remove the caffeine, and that’s where it loses some flavor. As for the decaf processing, there are several ways this can happen:
- Chemicals: for the past 100 years, one way of separating the caffeine from green (unroasted) coffee beans is using chemical solvents. The Roselius Process was invented between 1903 and 1906 and used benzene to remove caffeine. Benzene is now recognized as a carcinogen, and thankfully this method is no longer sanctioned for decaffeinating coffee. However, chemical processes are still routinely used; dichloromethane and ethyl acetate are the most commonly used solvents to make decaf beans. Both of these are considered safe, but the idea of coffee laden with chemicals does not sit well with us.
- Water: This method uses a solvent which is completely natural and unarguably safe: H2O. Osmosis and solubility completely replace the need for additional chemicals or solvents, but it can also strip a lot of the oils and flavor compounds out of the coffee, which is one of the reasons decaf may be considered “uncool.” However, the Stumptown Decaf House Blend - what we use for decaf espresso at HubBub - utilizes the Mountain Water Process (AKA Swiss Water Process), which takes extra care to retain as much original flavor as possible.
Here are the basics of how it works:
Unroasted coffee beans are immersed in hot water until most of the flavor and caffeine is extracted. The water, now charged with all of the flavors and caffeine which used to be in the beans, is passed through a charcoal filter. The porous structure of the charcoal traps the larger caffeine molecules while allowing smaller oil and flavor compounds to pass through. The removed caffeine can be sold to soda companies and other brands which will use it. The flavor charged water is then reintroduced to the green beans, which ultimately results in a coffee that maintains nearly all of its original flavor profile but with no caffeine. It’s not a 100% perfect system but the resulting coffee, especially the beans we get from Stumptown, is rich, balanced, and free of both caffeine and chemicals.
Stumptown, as we hope you know by now, does not skimp or cut corners in anything they do. So their decaf coffee starts with super high quality coffee beans, carefully blended from high altitude regions in Latin American and Indonesia. The coffee has a moderate body with a nice, clean finish and a versatile, smooth flavor which works equally as well served black, as in espresso shots or Americanos, or in milky espresso drinks.
Next time you’re around someone who takes a cheap shot at decaf or those who drink it, remind them that not all decaf coffee is created equal. And if it’s ever late in the afternoon, or you’ve already maxed out your caffeine quota for the day, give our decaf a whirl. We think it will change your mind about what decaf can be.
Decaf mug photo by Terry Johnston.