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Taming The Buzz: Making Decaf Coffee

People drink coffee for different reasons. Some love the flavor while others are more about getting a jolt of caffeine to wake them up or keep them going. Either way, there are times when lots of people want to enjoy a cup of coffee without the buzz of caffeine. The answer to this dilemma is decaffeinated, or decaf coffee as it is often called. However, it’s important to know that decaffeinated doesn’t mean zero caffeine when it comes to coffee. European standards require 99.9% of the caffeine to be removed to qualify as decaffeinated, while US standards require the removal of 97% of the caffeine. This is good to know if you’re particularly concerned about being exposed to caffeine. If you’ve ever wondered, “Is decaf healthy?” it’s easy enough to conclude the lack of caffeine makes it healthier than regular coffee. But it also begs the question of how coffee companies go about making decaffeinated coffee – and that’s the focus topic of this article.

The History of Making Decaf Coffee

Although the earliest real evidence for people drinking coffee goes all the way back to 15th century Yemen (and there are those who think it goes back even further), it wasn’t until the 1800s that people began seriously complaining about insomnia among coffee drinkers and wanting a solution for it. German analytical chemist Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge was the one who first isolated caffeine as the culprit, but it would be many more years before a successful decaffeination process was discovered. Early attempts at decaffeination were performed by applying various organic solvents to roasted coffee beans, but the results negatively affected the flavor and aroma of the coffee. But the solvents couldn’t seem to sufficiently penetrate raw coffee beans. Decaffeination efforts stalled out until a fortunate accident occurred in 1903.

Ludwig Roselius, a German merchant, discovered a decaffeination process when a shipment of coffee beans was accidentally soaked in sea water. The beans lost much of their caffeine without losing much taste. Soon steam was being used to expand coffee beans and open their pores, allowing organic solvents to penetrate the beans and remove the caffeine while leaving everything else largely intact. The trick then became finding effective solvents. Early ones used included benzene, trichloroethylene, and chloroform, all of which have been discontinued because they were discovered to be carcinogenic. Dichloromethane (also called methylene chloride) is another that is still sometimes used even though it is both mildly toxic and carcinogenic, but it is allowable as long as trace amounts of the solvent stay well below an established threshold. The FDA’s regulation on this allows up to ten parts per million of residual dichloromethane, but most coffee makers have managed to get it down closer to one part per million – well below the government’s threshold. This is largely thanks to the roasting of the coffee beans. Dichloromethane evaporates at 104°F, and most roasting ovens reach temperatures approaching or exceeding 400°F.

Ethyl Acetate

This is the most common organic solvent process used to decaffeinated coffee today. It is considered a relatively natural solvent since it can be created by such biological processes as fermenting sugar cane, so you’ll find coffees labeled as “naturally decaffeinated” even though they use this organic solvent. The specific method for using ethyl acetate can be either direct or indirect. In the direct approach, raw coffee beans are steamed for 30 minutes to open their pores, then the beans are repeatedly rinsed for around 10 hours with ethyl acetate to remove the caffeine. The indirect approach takes a batch of raw coffee beans and soaks them hot water for several hours. After removing the beans, the ethyl acetate is used to remove the caffeine from the water, which is now like very strong coffee. As this water is recycled with subsequent batches of beans, an equilibrium is reached where the only thing coming out of a batch of beans is the caffeine, leaving everything else intact. This indirect method is also sometimes referred to as water-processed because of its use of water, but it still relies on organic solvents like ethyl acetate. The KVW method (also called Euro Prep or The European Method) of decaffeination is another version of this indirect approach, favored especially in Germany and throughout Europe, using methylene chloride (dichloromethane) for a solvent.

Swiss Water Process

The Swiss Water Process of decaffeination was invented in Switzerland (hence the name) but didn’t become commercially available until 1980. It was the first decaffeination process that didn’t require any solvents at all. The method soaks coffee beans in a caffeine-free green coffee extract (GCE), which draws the caffeine out of the beans while leaving everything else in place. The extract is then run through activated charcoal filters that remove the larger caffeine molecules while allowing the smaller flavor and oil molecules to pass through so the GCE can be used for another round of decaffeination. This method takes 8-10 hours to produce coffee that is 99.9% free of caffeine. Using only water would “wash out” more than just the caffeine in the coffee beans being decaffeinated, which is why the GCE is needed, which makes the process more selective, targeting just the caffeine. There’s only one plant in the world that performs Swiss Water Process decaffeination, and it is located in the city of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. The facility is certified organic by the Organic Crop Improvement Association (OCIA) and Aurora Certified Organic, and is also certified Kosher by the Kosher Overseers Association.

Mountain Water Process

The Mountain Water Process is essentially the same method as the Swiss Water Process. The main difference is that the Mountain Water Process was developed and takes place in Mexico using glacial water from Pico de Orizaba mountain.

Researchers have been trying for quite some time to breed or genetically modify coffee plants to produce naturally caffeine-free coffee beans, but so far without any commercially viable success stories. In the meantime, coffee companies around the world will continue to rely upon the three primary methods described above for making decaffeinated coffee.

If you’d like to find out more about Empire Coffee’s decaffeinated coffees or have any questions about any of our products, feel free to send us a note through our contact page. We’d love to hear from you!

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