January 12, 2011
(excerpt from an article in The New York Times by Kim Severson)
At coffee drinkers’ high school, the decaf crowd always sits at the losers’ table. They know coffee geeks call their double-shot decaffeinated cappuccinos “why bothers.” They lie awake deep into the night, pondering whether the waiter was spiteful or just lazy when he poured what was evidently a cup of regular.
But things are looking up for coffee’s least respected fans. The latest wave of niche coffee roasters are committed to finding a more delicious decaf. “We have a special obligation to the decaf drinker,” said Peter Giuliano, director of coffee and an owner of Counter Culture Coffee, based in Durham, N.C. “Those guys are the true believers. They’re not drinking coffee because they need to wake up. They’re only drinking coffee because they like the taste.”
Since the early 1900s, when commercial decaffeinated coffee was developed and sold under the brand names Kaffee HAG and Sanka, coffee without the buzz has been more of a chemistry experiment than a vehicle for flavor. Later, as more companies got into the premium-coffee game, the best beans usually went into signature blends and single-origin offerings. Second-rate beans went to the decaffeination plant.
The decaffeination process itself doesn’t help. There are only a few methods to remove the caffeine, but they all begin the same way: with soaking in water or steaming. That means raw beans arrive from the decaffeination plant in a kind of prebrewed state, their flavor already compromised.
Now, the new breed of boutique roasters who focus extraordinary levels of attention on finding good beans are changing the art of decaf. As a result, decaffeinated coffee can have all the pedigree and, often, all the flavor any coffee geek could want.
The “direct method” sends the steamed beans through a rinse of methylene chloride, which pulls out caffeine. The process leaves hundreds of other flavor compounds intact and only bare traces of the solvent, which drying and high roasting temperatures eliminate.
Mr. Welsh, who was traveling to coffee fields before many of the new wave of young roasters even had their first cup, prefers it. “The solvents don’t solve for the tasty things in coffee,” he said. “You can get in and out fast without damaging the flavor.”
Some newer roasters like Stumptown prefer the “mountain water process,” saying it preserves the sweetness and balance in coffee. The name was coined at a plant in Veracruz, Mexico. It’s a new challenger to the Swiss Water Process, which the coffee roasters who came of age in the 1980s embraced. Swiss Water Process is actually a trade name used by a decaffeinating plant in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Whether it has the name Swiss or mountain attached to it, the industrial water process works through osmosis. A batch of green coffee beans is soaked in hot water and discarded. The brew is then sent through a carbon filter to remove the caffeine but leave the flavors and oils. A new batch of green beans gets soaked in the water, which draws out only the caffeine.
Removing caffeine — a bitter-tasting chemical that is in every part of the coffee plant and acts as a natural deterrent to pests — is also expensive. It can add a dollar or more to the wholesale cost of a pound, although decaf drinkers at the coffee bar pay the same for a cup as everybody else.
For all that, decaf still has a little caffeine. Amounts vary depending on how the bean is processed and how the roasted coffee is brewed.
How good is the new breed of decaffeinated coffee? You decide. We have something for every taste. Choose between Decaf Dark Kenya, Decaf Colombian, Decaf Ethiopian, Decaf Guatemalan, Decaf Dark Costa Rican, or Decaf Espresso.