We don’t often talk about coffee enough these days for so many reasons, but many people are starting to question decaf coffee brands these days. That leaves many of us wondering how decaf coffee is made, so we’re providing our best answer to give you a better understanding. The results might give you more reason to select decaf coffee brands based on what we’ve found from this curious inquiry.
What is decaf coffee?
If you’ve ever been to your local diner, you’ll likely see that familiar orange brimmed coffee carafe and instinctively know it’s the decaf stuff. We certainly know a thing or two about tea but many of us who hear about decaf coffee simply think it’s coffee that has a majority of the caffeine taken out. Actually, decaf coffee is a little bit more than that! It’s like asking who is buried in Grant’s Tomb…
The truth is that the caffeine is removed to a minimum but not completely. As it turns out, there is normally at least 95 milligrams of caffeine in a normal cup of Joe. With decaf, there are merely 2 milligrams of caffeine swimming within your typical decaf brew. But that might differ from method to method since each decaffeination method will slightly differ. And not every method will completely remove caffeine from the coffee bean as you’ll find out.
How do they remove caffeine from coffee?
The Swiss method
We don’t give the Swiss enough credit for being a country unless you’ve heard of the Swiss Army knife, milk chocolate, or the Red Cross. You may not know that the Swiss also invented the handheld immersion blender, Absinthe, and aluminum foil! They also invented direct democracy, and the discovery of antihistamines, and were the first to create numbered bank accounts.
The Swiss method for removing caffeine is relatively simple since it starts with soaking green coffee beans before they are roasted. The beans soak in water long enough so that the caffeine separates from the bean from the inside out. To be honest, a green coffee bean instinctively tries to find equilibrium between the caffeine content and the water, so the caffeine separates from the bean into the water.
After this, they use special filters to remove the caffeine from the water, which makes the coffee bean 99% caffeine-free. This is why these beans are labeled as Swiss Water beans and often come at a price that is much higher than decaffeinated coffee brands. It will also appear much darker when it gets roasted since the caffeine that’s removed changes the coffee bean which then makes brewed coffee appear a lot darker than the roast actually is.
This is the old-school method for removing caffeine from coffee beans and is how a majority of the global coffee beans remove the caffeine content. It uses Methylene Chloride and beans are dipped into this chemical which removes about 96 to 97% of the caffeine content in the bean. The downside is that methylene chloride is still present within green coffee beans up until they get roasted.
Some may argue that the leftover taste of methyl chloride can still be obvious since this chemical is used as a paint remover and inside hair spray. They put an aroma inside the solvent to hide the taste and use hot steam to remove a majority of the exterior solvent on the outside. It takes roasting to vaporize most of the solvent so all that’s left is the aroma and charred bean flavor.
A shocking study has found that many of the decaffeinated coffee that gets imported into the US and Canada include residual Methyl Chloride within this type of decaffeinated coffee.
The weird part about using this process is that carbon dioxide doesn’t do anything until it’s compressed and then it partly becomes a watery liquid. Just like the Swiss method, the green coffee beans are placed into a chamber that is pressurized with carbon dioxide gas. As the chamber is degassed, the gas within the bean is completely vaporized as well. This is a clean method for taking the caffeine out of coffee beans.
This is somewhat of a mystery since the liquefied carbon dioxide is supposed to separate the caffeine and mix with the liquid-gas just like water. The reality is that the beans still need to be washed which is leaving most of the caffeine on the outside of the bean. This is going to remove at least 95% of the caffeine but is also depending on the cleaning process afterward. It also will have a price tag attached when this method is used for most decaf coffee brands.