Ah, caffeine… the sweet white stuff whose primary use is to save our heads from hitting the desk in the mornings.
It is the world’s most commonly used psychoactive drug, and it’s found naturally in the seeds, fruits and leaves of many plants including tea, cacao and yerba mate as well as coffee. For the plants it acts as a pesticide, and for us it acts as a stimulant to our central nervous system.
For many people it is the reason they drink coffee. So what’s with decaf?
Caffeine, it’s kinda coffee’s thing.
In around 800 A.D. Kaldi, a goat herder of Ethiopia, noticed his goats grooving rather quickly after eating the cherries from a bush. So he tried a cherry himself from the busy and he too found himself with an “unherd of” spring in his step. And since then, the coffee plant was cultivated for its vigour-inducing caffeine.
But coffee has come a long way since, in addition to the social reasons of drinking coffee, many of us enjoy the great variation, complexity and depth of flavour in coffee. Because of this, drinking coffee for caffeine has taken a bit of a back seat.
This said, I’m not too sure why decaffeination was explored so early, in 1903, but this is when the first decaf coffee came about. The process first patented was the “Roselius process” and it’s reminiscent of a “triumph of science over nature” situation. Roselius washed the beans in benzene, thus removing the caffeine and successfully getting decaffeinated coffee to market but also raising some “health concerns”. Subsequently, these concerns lead to the demise of the process and a new need for innovation, a sign that there was still interest in coffee without the caffeine. The challenge was (and still is) to retain the flavours of the coffee while removing the caffeine. Today, there are several different processes used by companies, but the one i’d like to focus on is the Swiss Water Process, the process that my Lazy Dog beans go through.
Swiss Water Process
The patented Swiss Water Process was first used in the 1930’s in Switzerland but is now owned by a company in Canada. In Swiss Water a “fodder” batch of green beans is soaked in a bath of water, this water absorbs not only the caffeine from the beans but also oils and other flavoursome compounds from the coffee. The beans are then removed from the bath and discarded. The water, which is now saturated with caffeine and oils etc. from that first batch of beans is then filtered to remove the caffeine. The same bath of goody-saturated water is then used to bathe another batch of beans. Because it’s saturated with all the goodies except the caffeine, this time, only the caffeine is extracted and thus the beans are decaffeinated (97-99%) with maximum flavour retention. The caffeine, once removed is a white powder. It’s sold for it’s use in energy drinks and non-sleepy pills etc.
Decaffeinated beans do pose some difficulties further down the line. The absence of caffeine makes roasting difficult – basically it’s easier to burn. When roasting by hand, the roaster must use their senses and adjust the temperature throughout the roasting process. Since decaf doesn’t have that white, waxy caffeine in it it tends to look and smell different to normal coffee. It takes a skilled roaster to roast it well, and this is perhaps why many who’ve tried decaf won’t like it.
The problem with decaf is that it will never be as good as non-decaffeinated coffee. But if you don’t want the caffeine and do want coffee then it is fantastic. I drink decaf from a plunger on most nights. It’s a fantastic toasty, warm drink. But in the morning? Never.
While decaf will never be as good as non-decaffeinated coffee, when it’s done right by way of starting with good quality beans and roasting it right, it can be brilliant and enjoyed by people who love the coffee without the caffeine.