How is Decaffeinated (Decaf) Coffee Made?

Decaffeinated coffee is appealing to people who find standard coffee to be too stimulating, have sensitive stomachs, or those who will be sleep deprived because of a nightcap. Diehard coffee consumers, though, don’t enjoy drinking “unleaded” brews as much as the alternative.

Unleaded Brew

On its own, a caffeine molecule is an astringent alkaloid. During the roasting and decaffeination processes, the potency of caffeine is lost. Aroma and flavor compounds might be removed or diminished during decaffeination, as well. While coffee beans that have been decaffeinated are troublesome to roast, the actual roasting process can create unpleasant textures and tastes that come with a number of decaf coffees. This happens when the roasting process is improperly performed. However, proper decaffeination processes protect the rich and original flavor aspects of the beverage even once caffeine is extracted.

coffee decaffeination

The market for decaffeinated coffee is seeing a surge in growth. These days, the beverage makes up for over 20% of the coffee consumed in America (in contrast, it only made up 3% in 1962). Here, we wanted to provide a basic rundown of the three most common ways coffee is decaffeinated.

3 Different Decaffeination Methods

The coffee decaffeination process started in Germany over one hundred years ago. While a number of patents have since arisen, these days, only a few main decaffeination techniques in the industry are used. All processes start in the same manner: roasted beans are integrated with water and steam to soften and open them up before coffee bonds in them are released. Once this step is completed, various methods – including the ones below – can be used. These approaches are named based on their process.

1. The Swiss Water Process

Arabica beans of high-quality are almost exclusively used for decaffeination with Swiss water. As expected, such high-quality final products come with higher prices. In short, you’ll get your money’s worth.

This process doesn’t involve the use of chemicals. To begin with, flavor extracts and caffeine are stripped out of the beans after a steam and water soak. This initial bean batch gets thrown out. The water now contains the caffeine, which gets filtered out through carbon. At this point, the caffeine-free (the flavored coffee extract) solution is the only thing that remains. This extract is then used to absorb caffeine out of a new bean batch. Because of solubility’s scientific principles, the caffeine inside of the new coffee beans is transferred to a low concentration area (the extract) from a high concentration area (the actual bean). Between 94 and 96% of the amount of caffeine is extracted by this process. Because no chemicals are involved (a carbon filter is what is also used for water purification), it is considered to be a natural, or organic, technique.

Water decaffeination

Other Water Decaffeination Techniques

For water decaffeination methods that aren’t Swiss Water, chemicals are sometimes utilized. Instead of using charcoal filters, chemical solvents can extract caffeine from a coffee-charged flavor source. You must keep the solvent away from the coffee beans, though. The only thing the beans should touch is water. The coffee’s flavor characteristics and rich scent are only slightly modified.

2. Solvent Techniques

Ethyl acetate and methylene chloride are solvents that are frequently used for coffee decaffeination. While synthetic methylene chloride is criticized for being an environmental hazard, use of it is permitted, assuming that residues do not exceed limits specified. Ethyl acetate can be derived from all-natural ingredients. It can also be synthetically produced. This approach is marketed as a “natural” decaffeination process. Sadly, there isn’t any way of determining whether the source of the solvent is synthetic or natural.

Solvent decaffeination

A. The Beans/Solvent Contact Techniques

Once the initial moistening phase has passed, circulation of the solvent occurs within the beans, taking the caffeine out. From there, water is used to rinse the beans before they are once again steamed. The residual solvent is evaporated before being dried out. The beans can then be roasted. Extracted caffeine tends to be consumed as soft drinks, as well as used for medicinal reasons. This chemical approach extracts between 96 and 98% of caffeine.

B. The Beans/Solvent No-Contact Technique

Once the initial moistening phase has passed, and hot water has fully soaked both coffee extracts and caffeine out of the beans, the water (now flavor-charged) is removed from the strip and integrated with a caffeine-uniting solvent. The solvent that carries the caffeine then gets taken out. The caffeine-free, flavor-charged water gets reunited with coffee beans that were stripped (so that oils and coffee flavors can be reabsorbed).

When this technique is used, the bean should never make contact with the solvent. Residual solvent gets evaporated during the last steaming phase. It also gets evaporated when the coffee bean roasting process is taking place.

Decaffeinating with Solvent – Does This Worsen the Taste of Decaf?

The solvent decaffeination process has a problem: solvents not only remove caffeine; they also extract other chemicals contained in coffee beans – some that provide the beverage with its unique scent and flavor. We do not have a complete list of these chemicals (as the chemical that gets removed with the caffeine varies based on the bean type, solvent type, and the length of the process). Nonetheless, the suggested chemical proportion will impact the taste of the coffee.

Purists of coffee can take comfort in knowing that their hunches were true – decaffeinated coffee isn’t as tasty as its counterpart. For people who simply want to experience the taste of a cappuccino minus the jitters that come with it, feel free to enjoy a cup of decaf.

3. The Carbon Dioxide Decaffeination Technique

Once the initial moisturizing phase has completed, decaffeinated coffee beans are placed in an extractor. “Supercritical” pressurized carbon dioxide (that is between 250 and 300 times the regular atmospheric pressure) is used. Once this pressure is reached, carbon dioxide becomes somewhat fluid, with a form that fluctuates between liquid and gas. When the “supercritical” solvent is passed through the beans, caffeine migrates towards it.

The solvent – which is now rich with caffeine – is passed through a caffeine-absorbing filter, which can be reused. Once pressure is released, and this process is complete, the solvent dissipates after reverting back to a gas. It doesn’t cost a lot of money to obtain carbon dioxide, nor is it toxic. This carbon dioxide technique extracts between 96 and 98% of caffeine without taking out other flavor characteristics of the coffee.

CO2 decaffeination

What Consumers Should Be Mindful Of – Decaffeinated Coffee Labels and the Ads for Them

Most caffeine-free types of coffee for sale in specialty shops are first sent to decaffeination plants in Germany and Switzerland. A majority of decaffeinated coffee is produced in these two countries. Upon completion of processing, they are sent to North America. Take comfort in knowing that the standards for processing in those countries are stringent, as are quality regulations of decaffeination facilities.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) mandates that coffee can leave no more than 3% of the caffeine in green beans that are untreated in order to be labeled as “decaffeinated.” If you are shopping for decaffeinated coffee, have a look to determine if it is a robusta or arabica blend.

Based on the kind of blend and/or bean, the quantity of coffee that is leftover in the final product can differ, also. For instance, the amount of caffeine in decaffeinated Robusta coffee is higher than that of arabica coffee. This is because Robusta beans contain almost double the amount of caffeine from its natural state than arabica beans.

Conventionally, Robusta beans that are inferior are selected for decaffeination since they produce a greater by-product of caffeine. The extracted caffeine is then sold for soft drink and medicinal purposes afterward. 

More different varieties of coffee beans than ever are getting decaffeinated for the superior flavor and finished body they feature. A coffee product with reduced caffeine has never been more appreciated than it is today.

Jay Arr

Jay Arr is passionate about everything coffee. What began as a simple interest in the history, production, and brewing of coffee led him to a job as a barista at a national coffee chain. That’s not where Jay’s story with coffee ends, however. Roasting and brewing day in and out, he continued to gather knowledge about all things coffee.

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