When caffeine is removed from coffee, what steps must be taken?

Even though many people consume coffee for the caffeine benefits it provides, many others prefer decaf or low-caffeine varieties. In fact, the global decaf coffee market is expected to be worth US $14.83 billion by 2031, according to research from Transparency Market Research.

Almost 120 years ago, German coffee merchant Ludwig Roselius used the first decaffeination process. The first mass-produced batch of decaf coffee was his invention in 1903. There have been numerous advances and innovations in decaffeination methods since then, so that today, a wide variety of different approaches are possible.

I consulted with two coffee experts to fill in the blanks. Continue reading for more of their analysis of the various decaffeination methods.

Maybe you'd also be interested in reading our piece on the essential information about decaf coffee for roasters.

A roaster conducts green coffee quality control

Caffeine is one of the main draws of coffee for consumers all over the globe.

The central nervous system is stimulated by caffeine, leading to improved mental performance, alertness, and overall state of mind. Many consumers, however, would rather limit their caffeine consumption and avoid these effects. Caffeine may be completely eliminated from the diet of some people for health reasons.  

The coffee industry has responded to these worries by developing several different decaffeination techniques.

Ludwig Roselius, through his trading company Kaffee HAG, began selling the world's first commercial decaf coffee in 1903. The following year, Roselius, along with Karl Wimmer and Johann Meyer, received a patent from the United States for "the treatment of coffee."

Their method for decaffeinating green beans involved steaming them in brine before dissolving the caffeine with benzene, which is now known to be carcinogenic.

More effective methods for decaffeinating foods without compromising their safety have been developed since then. Caffeine can be removed from coffee through processing, but it's important to keep in mind that even decaf coffee may contain trace amounts of caffeine.

Caffeine levels must be reduced by at least 97% for a coffee to be labeled "decaf." However, in Europe, coffee is expected to have 99 Caffeine removed at a rate of 9%

Dutch green coffee importer The Coffee Quest was founded in part by Friso Miguel Spoor.  

Decaf coffee "used to be mostly commercial-grade," he explains, "and thus likely of lower quality."  

Even though decaffeination was first introduced at the turn of the 20th century, its popularity skyrocketed in the following decades, especially the 1980s.

The demand for high-quality decaf coffee, however, has been on the rise in recent years.

The demand for higher-quality decaf coffee has increased over the past five years, according to Friso. They want decaf coffee that tastes as good as specialty coffees that don't have caffeine removed. ”

He also says that the Coffee Quest only sells about 2% decaf coffee overall.

He explains, "We have a Brazilian decaf coffee that sells well, but our Colombian decaf coffee has a slightly higher price point because it is higher quality."

Tanks used for decaf processing

Many methods of caffeine removal have been developed since the early 1900s.

Solvents for chemicals

Chemical solvents, such as methyl chloride or ethyl acetate, were once widely used to extract caffeine from green coffee.

The green beans are sprayed with a solution of water and the synthetic solvent (which is meant to closely mimic the chemical structure of coffee without caffeine).

Green coffee is processed directly when it is steamed continuously, rinsed with the solvent for up to ten hours, then drained and re-steamed to remove any remaining solvent residue.  

While using the indirect method, green coffee is first soaked in hot water for a few hours before being removed and the solvent being added.

However, it's worth noting that methyl chloride is being phased out as a solvent in decaf coffee production as more and more businesses become aware of the potential toxicity of the chemical. Yet, the FDA has ruled that small amounts of methyl chloride are safe for human consumption.

The Method of Swiss Water

The patented Swiss Water process was created in the 1930s, but it didn't see widespread commercial use until the 1970s.

The Swiss Water method involves the use of pure water infused with the soluble compounds of green coffee (the caffeine is removed by means of a carbon filter). Green coffee extract (GCE) is the common name for this compound cocktail.

The green coffee is then soaked for up to 10 hours, during which time the caffeine compounds are transferred from the beans to the GCE, leaving roughly 0 percent caffeine in the beans. Caffeine Content: 0.01%

The Swiss Water decaf method is widely considered the gold standard among specialty coffee experts because it is thought to preserve many of the coffee's original flavors. Also, this is one of the healthiest and most all-natural approaches to decaffeinating green coffee.

Hydrologic Methods That Are Not the Status Quo

Other companies have also developed water processes for removing caffeine, though the Swiss Water process is the most well-known.

The Mountain Water Process, invented by Mexican firm Descamex in 1987, involves using reverse osmosis and carbon filtration technology to produce potable water.

Managing Director of Descamex is Luis Demetrio Arandia Muguira.

While the general principle of caffeine extraction is the same as in other water processes, he explains, "we change many variables throughout."

This method involves steaming green coffee while submerging it in a caffeine-free green coffee extract, with the latter two steps optimized by varying water flow, temperature, and pressure. As soon as the green beans' caffeine content is high enough, they are triple-dried and cleaned.

Luis tells me, "Our main goal is to preserve the original characteristics of the coffee as much as possible."  

He also says that some coffee shops that have tried Descamex decaf have reported tasting hints of tobacco, malt, and caramel in the roasted product. Luis stresses, however, that factors such as origin and roast profile are ultimately decisive.

A roaster places green coffee beans into jute bags

The carbon dioxide method is one of the most well-known alternatives to coffee's natural caffeine.

As part of this method, green coffee is subjected to liquid carbon dioxide at pressures of up to 300 bar.  

The carbon dioxide process is a "supercritical" process, Luis explains, because it takes place at extremely high pressure. "The high pressure causes carbon dioxide to become a liquid, which allows the coffee to keep more of its caffeine. ”

As a result, the liquid carbon dioxide is either left to evaporate after absorbing the caffeine compounds, or is filtered through charcoal to remove any traces of caffeine that remain.  

Friso tells me that his experiences with carbon dioxide-processed decaf coffees have been positive.

"The mouthfeel was prominent, but the intensity of the body was slightly lower," he says. As one reviewer put it, "One of the coffees, a Colombian from Huila La Victoria, tasted slightly floral and had a delicate acidity."

He continues, "The process indisputably altered the flavor profile, but it was still sweet and received good feedback from customers." Carbon dioxide decaffeinated coffee from Brazil was served, and it retained its sweetness despite the removal of caffeine. ”

Though it has shown some encouraging results, this method is more energy-intensive, which has slowed its rate of expansion.

The high pressure may be detrimental to some coffees, but may be advantageous to others," Luis explains to me. ”

A technique based on sugarcane

The sugarcane method is a relatively recent development in the field of decaf processing.

Previously, we discussed how ethyl acetate, a byproduct of sugarcane and a few fruits, can be used as a solvent to extract caffeine.

"More recently," Friso says, "we have seen more and more suppliers using the sugarcane method, which is primarily carried out in Colombia."

Descafecol, a company in Colombia, was an early adopter of this method because it uses ethyl acetate made from sugarcane. Green beans are added to the mixture of extract and spring water, which is then heated and pressure-cooked.

Descafecol boasts that its decaf coffee has been awarded scores of 85 or higher on the Specialty Coffee Association's rating scale by a large number of satisfied customers.

Friso says, "The coffee has a different appearance, but you can't really taste a difference on the cupping table." Specialty decaf coffees, as far as we have cupped them, maintained a lively, noticeable acidity. ”

A barista grinds coffee into a portafilter

According to Luis, there has been a noticeable increase in requests for decaf coffee.

He says, "Three major trends have emerged in the decaf market." First of all, more people are drinking decaf coffee at home now that they're drinking more coffee overall due to Covid-19.

He continues, "Consumers are also becoming more cognizant of their caffeine consumption." Finally, decaf coffee is becoming more popular in a wider variety of markets. ”

Last but not least, customers want better coffee, and decaf is no exception. The quality stigma it has carried for so long has been gradually fading away in recent years.

As an illustration, Cole Torode, a Canadian barista champion, used a decaf Gesha variety that was Swiss Water processed to finish third at the World Championships in 2019. The quality has obviously increased if this is the case.

Additionally, several low-caffeine coffee varieties have appeared in the market in recent years. One of the most well-known cases is laurina, which can have as few as zero 2% to 0 3% caffeine), and there are a few others, such as the Coffea charrieriana grown in western Cameroon and the Arabica variety AC1 discovered in Ethiopia.

A roaster conducts quality control on decaf coffee beans

A number of new methods have been developed for processing decaf coffee since the industry's inception in the early 20th century. There is a good chance that more tools and techniques will become accessible in the coming years as the market expands, as is expected.

Still, the future of the decaf coffee market is uncertain, and it is possible that the recent rise of low-caffeine coffee varieties will have an impact.

Enjoyed it Then you should check out our piece on the potential for low-caffeine coffee varieties to replace decaf.

Photos courtesy of The Coffee Quest and Descamex

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