Is Decaf Coffee Worth Its Bad Rap?

branch with coffee beans on it

Is Decaf Coffee Worth Its Bad Rap?

Perhaps it was a simple pour of wine in the quiet hours of the morning before anyone else in the house was awake. Or those strong cold beers you grab for the team on the way to the office. It could be an afternoon bubbly latte. Or an after-dinner snack that is both a dessert and a digestif. Everyone’s coffee etiquette is a little different, but more than half of the country – about 150 million Americans – has one.

For many people, caffeine, a natural stimulant found in coffee beans, tea leaves and chocolate, is the main reason for that daily cup of coffee. Caffeine can help with focus and temporarily suppress fatigue. And for most, it’s moderately safe (according to the FDA, healthy adults can drink 400 milligrams, or about four regular cups of coffee, per day without negative effects).

But some people metabolize it differently or are just sensitive to it and may experience restlessness, anxiety, or a rapid heartbeat after drinking coffee. Others must avoid caffeine because of the medication they are taking or because they are pregnant or breastfeeding. And some may just want to enjoy a cappuccino later in the day without disrupting their sleep. Decaffeinated coffee seems to be the obvious answer in those situations (and there’s even some evidence that decaffeinated coffee may still offer some of the health benefits of coffee). But decaf has a pretty poor reputation in many parts: Health-conscious people don’t trust the chemicals used to decaffeinate. Craft coffee elites question the point of having any caffeine-free coffee. And many people get the impression that decaf simply doesn’t taste good.

Was that bad rap worth it? We took a close look at the decaffeination process to find out.


If you’re someone who is very sensitive to caffeine and won’t drink decaf coffee because even that gives you a jolt, you’re on to something: Decaffeinated coffee isn’t completely decaffeinated. . With any decaffeination process, it is difficult to ensure that the caffeine is completely removed from the beans. And the FDA doesn’t have exact requirements for caffeine levels in decaf coffee either — it simply says that decaf coffee typically has between 2 and 15 milligrams of caffeine per 8-ounce cup. That amount is significantly less than regular coffee but definitely caffeine-free.

And that’s just the amount of caffeine in beans. Many variables — including brewing method, brewing time, and grind size — will affect how much caffeine is extracted from the beans into your coffee, even if you’re starting with decaf beans. The way you drink your coffee also matters: Technically, a cup of espresso may have less caffeine than a pour-over cup, but because we tend to drink a cup of coffee quickly and drink a cup of coffee in For a longer time, the espresso may feel stronger. (This is true for regular and decaf.)


Eliminating caffeine without removing important flavor compounds is very difficult (the earliest successful method used benzene, now known to be a carcinogen). Today, two methods are used to safely decaffeinated beans while preserving the flavor.

Ethyl acetate method

The EA method is quite similar to the original decaffeination process, but instead of using toxic benzene, it uses ethyl acetate. Ethyl acetate is a natural chemical commonly found in fruit and can also be produced synthetically from sugarcane and fermented alcohol. This method of decaffeination is used in Colombia, where both coffee and sugar cane are widely available.

With the EA method, green (unroasted) coffee beans are steamed and then washed with an ethyl acetate solution to remove the caffeine. The beans were then rinsed to remove any residual ethyl acetate, and dried. Even if ethyl acetate is left over after this second wash, its boiling point is 177°F, so it won’t survive the roasting process, where temperatures can reach 500°F.

Swiss Water Process

The Swiss water treatment process is a patented method known as the chemical-free process. It’s a little complicated, but bear with us: Green coffee beans are soaked in hot water so that the water-soluble caffeine and flavor compounds are released from the beans. This water is separated to get the water part of the beans, then filtered to remove the caffeine. The remaining water, called green coffee extract, does not contain most of the caffeine but still has all the flavor compounds. This solution is then used to soak the next batch of fresh green coffee beans. During this soaking process, the caffeine moves out of the beans and into the water. The flavor molecules are still incorporated into the beans because the water has been highly concentrated with flavor molecules. This process can take up to 10 hours.

Both of these processes claim to remove at least 97% of caffeine from the coffee beans and can produce delicious coffee. The reasons roasters might choose one method over the other have less to do with efficiency, taste or health concerns and more to do with logistics and operations. The Swiss Water process requires the beans to stop between the farmer and the roaster, while the EA process takes place locally in Colombia before the beans are sent to the roasters. (The Swiss Water Process can use beans from a variety of regions; EA is currently only available in Colombia.) Both are great safe options for manual decaffeination of coffee beans.

Is DECAF TASTE as good as regular coffee?

Decaf can taste great, even taste as good as regular coffee. There’s certainly a snob atmosphere to decaf coffee, but more and more craft coffee brands have made it a priority to offer a really good decaf coffee to their customers. The biggest thing against decaf is that there isn’t much demand. That affects everything from the production and distribution of decaf beans to brewing them in cafes. (Your poor impression of decaf could be because your local coffee shop brews a pot of decaf at 8 a.m. to last all day. Not so ideal. Next time, order a decaf Americano if you want it. secure a new cup.)

“Decaf for lovers” is a popular refrain at Counter Culture Coffee, according to roasting company coffee educator Ryan Ludwig. (Counter Culture currently offers two decafs, one made with the Swiss Water Process and the other made with the EA process; Ludwig likes both herself.) That makes sense: Because decaf drinkers aren’t just Mandatory morning banging to get through work, there’s something more platonic about their intentions. They are in there just for the taste. They are arguably the biggest coffee aficionados.

More about coffee

Gears, tricks and beans to make good coffee

A guide to coffee without coffee

What happens when you detox from coffee?

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