Decaffeinated Coffee - The Processes & The Truth

You're Curious About Decaffeinated Coffee and Want To Know More

All coffee beans have caffeine naturally in them.  There are no coffee beans grown that are caffeine free.  This means that the caffeine has to be removed through artificial processes.  Many coffee drinkers consider this to be very unnatural and goes against the proper ways of coffee.  Is it possible to have a good tasting cup of decaf coffee?  Let's dive into this topic and you can make your own decisions.

First, decaffeinated coffee is not caffeine free.  There is a small trace amount of caffeine left in the beans after the decaffeination process.  According to the USDA, for coffee to be considered decaf, it only has to be 97% caffeine free.  To make coffee beans 97% or more caffeine free, what are the processes?  There are 4 processes to decaffeinate coffee beans and these four processes can be broken into two groups, solvent based & non-solvent based.

The two groups, four process are as follows:

Solvent Based Process

1)  Direct Solvent Process

2)  Indirect Solvent Process

Non-Solvent Based Process

1)  Swiss Water Process (SWP)

2)  Carbon Dioxide Process

For the solvent based processes, methylene chloride (MC) or ethyl acetate are the primary chemical used. 

Direct Solvent Process, the coffee beans have their pores opened up by steaming and heating the beans for around 30 minutes or so.  Once the beans are heated and steamed and the pores are opened, the beans are repeatedly soaked and rinsed with a solvent for about 10 to 12 hours.  After the beans are soaked and decaffeinated, the beans are normally reheated to evaporate the solvent.  Usually in the direct solvent process, ethyl acetate is the solvent used.  This chemical is sometimes touted as being natural or natural process.  This is kind of a play on words as ethyl acetate does naturally occur in some fruits in very small quantity, but the ethyl acetate used to decaffeinate coffee beans is synthetically made, so not really natural.

Indirect Solvent Process, water is heated to a point just below boiling.  Once the water is heated properly, the coffee beans are soaked in the heated water, allowing all the caffeine to be leached out of the coffee beans.  This process also removed all the oils and flavor molecules out of the coffee bean also.  Once the caffeine, oils, and flavors are removed from the coffee beans, the beans are removed from the liquid solution and washed.  The liquid soup of caffeine, oils, and flavors are mixed with methylene chloride (MC).  The caffeine will attach to the methylene chloride and and the liquid is heated to a point that the MC and caffeine evaporate leaving just coffee oils and flavors.  At this point, the coffee beans are reintroduced to the liquid and allowed to cool so the oils and flavors are reabsorbed by the coffee beans but without caffeine.

Swiss Water Process (SWP), is a process that does not use any chemicals to remove the caffeine from coffee beans.  Instead, water is heated up to just below boiling and the beans are soaked in the water.  The heated water pulls out the caffeine, oils, and flavors from the coffee beans.  This heated water with all the caffeine, oils, and flavors are ran through a filter.  This filter is an activated charcoal filter that is sized to capture the caffeine but allow the oils and flavor molecules to pass through.  The beans that were stripped of caffeine to create this solution are discarded and used to flavor the new batch of coffee beans that are stripped of caffeine, oils, and flavors.  Because of this oil and flavor solution, this new batch is filled with flavors and oils as the caffeine is stripped from the beans. 

Carbon Dioxide Process, is a process that uses CO2 as the agent to strip caffeine from the coffee beans.  With this process, coffee beans are soaked in water to open the pores of the bean preparing it for the caffeine to leave.  After the beans are soaked, the soaked beans are placed into a container and liquid CO2 is forced into the container and placed under extreme pressures.  This pressure allows the CO2 to remove the caffeine, and only the caffeine from the coffee beans.  The CO2 and caffeine are screened off and transferred to another container and allowed to change to a gaseous state and recaptured for reuse and the caffeine is left behind for discard.

If you are worried about the chemicals methylene chloride or eythl acetate, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has cleared them for use as long as they are less than 10 parts per million.  In the decaffeinate process, their use is at about 1 part per  million, well below the FDA threshold.

BUT...methylene chloride & eythl acetate are chemicals regardless, and you, and only you, can make the determination if decaf coffee made with these two chemicals is something you want to consume.

Why Does Decaf Coffee Taste Different - Most Of The Time?

This is because the process to remove caffeine from the beans, alters the beans, and creates a bean that is harder to roast and control.  What usually ends up happening is the decaf coffee is mild tasting and smelling, producing a coffee that is lacking the rich bold flavor coffee is known for.  To offset this, some decaf is made with a stronger bean that is able to be roasted to a darker roast to try and produce a stronger and bolder flavor.

Decaf is a viable option for many people.  If you are looking at switching to decaf, now you have the knowledge on how decaf is made so you can make a more informed choice on which decaf, if any, you are willing to consume.

***If you liked this article or found it informative, I'd love to hear your feedback and comments!***

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  • breville vs delonghi

    Great post

  • Tory Kratz

    That is really interesting! I never knew. Anytime you strip the natural composition of something it changes it completely. Most natural items have a balance of nutrients that work together for betterment, when you start messing with that you mess with the nutritional base it can cause issues over time.

    Great article!! Thank you for the information!! Love learning about stuff like this!

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