Recently a kindly woman contacted the Weekly with a serious dilemma.
“I’ve noticed an alarming trend at the newest and trendiest coffee shops, to not offer decaf at all,” she explained by email, adding that even when a place stocks decaf, it is often of inconsistent quality—which is a nice way of saying it smacks of watered-down Sanka.
Yeah, decaf. Even a mention of the word invites heaps of derision from self-styled coffee snobs. It would be harder to encounter more scathing commentary. Order Earl Grey in front of matcha sipping hipsters? That’s nothing. Praise Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Hannity? Not even close. At their most benign, caffeine connoisseurs will dismiss decaf as a non-coffee product or just wave you off with a “why bother?”
To be fair, it is rather a difficult thing to pry the caffeine from coffee beans without accidentally disposing of some compounds that contribute to the nuances of the finished drink. Something like 1,000 naturally occurring chemicals in the bean contribute to the flavor of coffee and simply hammering it methylene chloride or ethyl acetate will probably wipe out a few of these.
But decaffeinated coffee exists and has for over a century. And there are people who for various reasons have to limit their exposure to caffeine. So how can decaf drinkers fit in with the in-crowd?
Surprisingly, decaf gets support from some in the third wave (the artisanal craft coffee movement that spawned the current appreciation of quality coffee, but you knew that).
“Decaf is for the real coffee connoisseurs,” says Tyler Ellis, owner of Captain + Stoker in Monterey.
Wait—what? Yes, he did just say that.
Ellis reasons that if you want coffee, but not for the jolt of caffeine, you are probably in it just for the taste. Hence, decaf fans are searching for good third wave stuff more so than the aforementioned snobs.
“I’ve made decaf first thing in the morning,” Ellis adds.
And it’s possible to go decaf and still be hip. Case in point, a visit to Hidden Fortress Coffee in Seaside’s The Press Club (admittedly just a few steps from the Weekly’s cosmopolitan offices ).
“That woman right there, she had a decaf oat milk latte,” says barista Darrell Collins, gesturing toward a customer. “The decaf microfarm—that’s my go-to.”
It turns out that some 12 percent of the coffee consumed worldwide has been sapped of its caffeine. So it’s likely that even the staunchest regular coffee drinker runs in the same circle as one or two who prefer decaf.
And to be clear, no coffee is 100 percent decaffeinated, no matter how hard processors try to run the critters off. While a cup of leaded—that’s what the cool kids said in the ’70s—packs 50 to 75 milligrams of caffeine, depending upon the bean, unleaded (it seemed clever back then) strips that figure to less than 10.
Of course, the poor woman in search of third wave decaf really wanted to know where, rather than how much. And that kinda depends upon the process, as well as the beans.
At Hidden Fortress they use organic beans and the Swiss Water Process. At Captain + Stoker, Ellis prefers beans treated to the Sugar Cane Process. The difference is...um…
Fortunately, Dr. Fergus Clydesdale, chair of the University of Massachusetts’ equine...sorry, make that food science...department, spelled things out for Scientific American.
“A mixture of water and green-coffee extract that has already been reduced in caffeine is circulated around the coffee beans within the extraction battery,” he told SA. “The decaffeinated coffee beans are then rinsed and dried, and a vessel containing fresh green coffee is put on steam. The caffeine-rich extract that was drawn off from the vessel containing the fresh, green coffee is passed through a bed of activated charcoal…” Zzz-zzz-zzz-zzz-zzz.
Huh? Where am...oh yeah. “...That helps it absorb caffeine without removing other compounds that contribute to the flavor of the coffee.”
Why couldn’t he just come out and say that last bit?
“It’s all steam and hot water,” Ellis says, although there’s a little sucrose involved, too. “It brings back the natural flavors.”
There, that was easy.
Essentially, the Swiss Water Process and the Sugar Cane or Natural Process are the same in a layman's view. While they do not remove as much caffeine as the application of a chemical, they do tend to leave the flavor. And that’s a good thing.
It’s still a challenge to roast, as processing tends to turn beans from green to a shade of Monterey Beige—it’s a thing—so roasters have a little more difficulty judging the doneness. But some have it mastered.
So for the forlorn decaf drinker who originally asked this week’s Burning Question, it’s necessary to ask around and find out how the beans were treated. But from the sound of things, it’s not impossible to find a decent pour over or latte or whatever to suit your tastes.
Of course, that means decaf people can now be snobby, carry copies of Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club, ride fixie bikes, and tie their man buns or whatever and get inside the door of the hip spots.
Before we part, a little footnote. Coffee scholars like Dr. Clydesdale credit a guy named Ludwig Roselius for inventing the first decaf process. In 1905, he applied benzene to green coffee beans to extract the caffeine.
Yeah, benzene. No wonder early decaf earned such a poor reputation.