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Where Does Decaf Coffee Come From?

Have you ever wondered how decaf coffee is made? We’ll let you in on a little secret, there’s no such thing as a decaf bean. Mind-boggling, right? So where does decaf coffee come from? Like a lot of the coffee we drink, it’s usually part of a blend of beans versus a single origin. As you’ll see, it’s all very scientific. Don’t worry though, we’ll break it down for you. But before we get into how coffee is decaffeinated today, here’s a little history lesson.

It may surprise you to learn that decaf coffee has been around for over a hundred years! A chemist named Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge became the first person to isolate caffeine from coffee beans in 1820. And, a couple of decades later, a German coffee merchant named Ludwig Roselius patented the first commercially used decaffeination process in 1906.

The Roselius Method used a chemical compound called benzene to remove caffeine from coffee beans. Today benzene is a known human carcinogen, so thankfully, you’ll no longer find it in your favorite decaf brew. But Roselius was on to something with his chemical concoction, and similar solvent-based processes are still commonly used in modern methods of decaffeination.

These days, the four main methods for decaffeinating coffee are the Methylene Chloride Method, Ethyl Acetate Method, Swiss Water Process, and Carbon Dioxide Process. Let’s explore how the different processes work and take a look at the pros and cons of each method.

The Methylene Chloride Method

We’ll start with the chemical solvent methods. These solvent solutions are the most common ways of removing caffeine to make instant decaf coffee. If no method is listed on the coffee packaging, a chemical solvent was likely used to extract the caffeine. In this method, caffeine is removed through either a direct or indirect process. There are two types of chemicals commonly used today. We’ll explore the Methylene Chloride Method first.

Sometimes referred to as “The European Method” due to its popularity in European countries, methylene chloride is most commonly used in the indirect solvent-based process of decaffeination. In this method, coffee beans are soaked in near-boiling water for several hours to remove the caffeine. Next, the caffeinated water is transferred to another tank to be washed with the chemical solvent. The compound is then removed using a steaming process and the beans are returned to the water to reabsorb the oils and flavors left behind.

This way, the beans never actually touch the chemical themselves. This process bonds the caffeine to the solvent without stripping away the flavor of the beans. And it successfully removes around 96 to 97 percent of caffeine from each batch of coffee.

The Ethyl Acetate Method

Ethyl acetate is another chemical used for solvent-based methods of decaffeination. Because ethyl acetate is the preferred chemical for the direct solvent-based process, it is often called the Ethyl Acetate Method. In this process, the beans are first steamed for about half an hour before being rinsed with the solvent to slowly remove the caffeine. Next, they’re drained of any liquid and then steamed a second time to get rid of any leftover solvent.

Ethyl acetate can be found in sugar cane and sweet fruits, giving it the reputation for being a more natural, and therefore safer, chemical than methylene chloride. In reality, due to the high expense of extracting the solvent from natural resources, the majority of ethyl acetate used in the decaffeinated process is synthetic. Still, coffee labeled as “naturally decaffeinated” was likely processed using the Ethyl Acetate Method. Many roasters, including us, prefer this method to others as it tends to retain the most acidity, sweetness, and clarity of the coffee.

If you’re a fan of decaf coffee, you may find it unsettling to think that chemicals are often used in the process of bringing you that cup of Joe. But rest assured, the quantities are quite small, approved by the FDA for use in decaffeination, and the likelihood of finding traces of chemicals in a brewed cup of coffee is very low due to the high roasting temperature of around 400 degrees. That’s hot!

The Swiss Water Method

Despite the FDA’s approval of solvent-based methods, many roasters are still weary of the potential toxicity of using chemicals to decaffeinate coffee. One non-solvent alternative is known as the Swiss Water Method. This process has been around since the early 1930s, but it wasn’t introduced to the commercial market until the 70s.

In the Swiss Water Decaf Method, the beans are soaked in water for up to 10 hours to extract the caffeine. Once the caffeine and flavor have been absorbed, the beans are discarded. What’s left is a liquid substance those in the industry call Green Coffee Extract (GCE). The GCE passes through a carbon filtration system, leaving behind only the original coffee bean flavors. New coffee beans are then soaked in the flavorful extract to remove any caffeine from the new beans while keeping the flavor intact.

Its tendency for yielding better flavors and higher quality coffee has made the Swiss Water Method the most popular way to decaffeinate coffee among specialty coffee and single-origin roasters. It’s also associated with organic coffee beans, and it guarantees that 99.9% of the caffeine is removed. So, if you’re looking for the most reliable, non-chemical, low-caffeine option, Swiss Water may be the right brew for you.

The Carbon Dioxide Method

The most recent method for caffeine removal is the Carbon Dioxide Method. Developed by scientists at the Max Plank Institute, it uses liquid Carbon Dioxide to separate the caffeine instead of water or chemical solvents. Green coffee beans are soaked in water and liquid CO2 inside a pressurized tank. The compound is then transferred to another tank to be depressurized. As the CO2 turns back into a gas, the caffeine is left behind in the water.

This caffeine-free CO2 can be re-used to decaffeinate multiple batches of beans. One downside to this method is that it requires large amounts of energy. It also tends to be more expensive than other methods. Due to these factors, it’s typically only used on those large batches of commercial-grade beans like those found at your local supermarket. That said, it is beginning to catch the eye of some independent roasters looking for alternatives to chemical and water-based methods.

How To Choose The Right Brew For You

So what’s the best method for a good cup of decaf coffee? And is it even really possible to find a truly flavorful cup of decaf? If you love coffee as much as we do, and you’ve ever tried cutting back on your caffeine intake, chances are you’ve had some not-so-great cups of decaf coffee. But as you can see, not all decaf is created equal. It’s true that some decaf processes can completely wash out the flavor of the coffee. That’s why, at Nomi, we buy and prefer decaf processed using the Ethyl Acetate Method.

For the best-tasting decaf, you’ll want to pay attention to the information provided by roasters on the packaging. High-quality, gourmet decaf coffee is definitely out there. Try ours here at Nomi Brew, called Happy Hour. Now that you know the different processes for creating a decaf brew, you’ll know what to look for when buying your next bag of beans!

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