Decaf Coffee: Methods to the Madness

There was a time in history when decaf coffee was synonymous with old dishwater. Lots of colorful four letter words were used to describe the stuff. Let’s face it, decaf coffee used to be completely disgusting! Any recommendation from doctors to drink decaf was quickly dismissed as a death sentence.

There was a time in history when decaf coffee was synonymous with old dishwater. Lots of colorful four letter words were used to describe the stuff. Let’s face it, decaf coffee used to be completely disgusting! Any recommendation from doctors to drink decaf was quickly dismissed as a death sentence.

Thankfully, modern methods for making decaf coffee are safer for coffee drinkers than before. They even, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, are capable of tasting good.

Why Do People Drink Decaf Coffee?

People drink decaf coffee for their health.

Some medical conditions or certain medications require people to limit their caffeine intake. Such can be the case for pregnant women or simply for people who have developed a sensitivity to caffeine.

Acid reflux, for example, can be the result of caffeine causing part of one’s esophagus to relax, thus allowing acid from the stomach to make its way upward. In others, caffeine amplifies their anxiety or even aggravates stomach ulcers.

But what do you do if you’re a coffee lover who needs to make a change for health reasons?

The answer is drinking decaf coffee. It’s a good alternative to the usual caffeine-laden variety. You can pour yourself a cup without having to worry about the effects of caffeine on your central nervous system.

What Is Decaf Coffee?

cup of decaffeinated joe.

Decaf is coffee that has had the caffeine removed through a chemical or natural process. It’s great for people who enjoy coffee but don’t want the negative side effects that too much caffeine intake causes in their bodies. In short, they can have their coffee and drink it too!

Does Decaf Coffee Have Caffeine?

Is there caffeine in decaf coffee?

Yes, decaf coffee does have some caffeine. It’s impossible to remove all of it from the coffee beans during decaffeination. The process usually draws out 97 percent of the caffeine content from the beans, leaving three percent behind in decaf coffee.

It’s not caffeine free, but it’s very little caffeine and not likely to cause a person the negative reactions they experience with regular coffee. The caffeine present is so minimal that most people can drink decaf an hour before going to bed and still fall asleep when their head hits the pillow.

If a Swiss Water process is used, then 99.9 percent of caffeine is removed, making it the variety with the least caffeine.

Decaf Coffee History: The Roselius Process

Old tins from Germany.

Before I get into the details of modern decaf processes, let’s look at how it all started. 

In 1903, a German coffee merchant named Ludwig Roselius accidentally discovered how to take caffeine out of coffee. One of his shipments had been flooded with seawater, and he realized that the caffeine had leached out but most of the coffee flavor remained.

So, he developed a process where green coffee beans would soak in saltwater. Once they were ready, he would then treat them with a solvent called benzene to get the caffeine out.

Thus, Roselius created the first decaf coffee under what would become the Sanka brand, and ultimately Maxwell House, in the United States.

Of course, this method isn’t used anymore because benzene has since been identified as a carcinogen. The four current processes for making decaf are outlined below. 

How Is Caffeine Removed From Coffee Today?

Washing fresh green coffee beans with water.

Nowadays, caffeine is removed from coffee through one of four methods. There are two chemical methods, called the Direct Chemical Process and the Indirect Chemical Process, which use solvents such as methylene chloride to remove caffeine. 

Also, there are two natural methods, called the Swiss Water Process and the Carbon Dioxide Process, which use organic solvents such as carbon filters or carbon dioxide to separate the caffeine from the beans.

While all the methods use water and green coffee beans, each uses a different agent to get the caffeine out. The specific method used affects the flavor of the decaffeinated coffee in different ways.

Chemical Processes

A scientist performing a chemical process.

Chemical processes usually use one of two solvents to remove caffeine from green coffee beans. Almost all decaf coffee is made this way. 

One solvent is methylene chloride, or dichloromethane. It’s classified as a toxic chemical, but the roasting of the coffee beans destroys any leftover chemicals from the decaffeination process. Allegedly, it’s unlikely that any solvent transfers to your coffee cup, so it’s seen as a safe method to use.

The other chemical used in making decaf coffee is ethyl acetate. Ethyl acetate is naturally occurring in fruits, so you’ll find that sometimes decaf coffee will be labeled as naturally decaffeinated, even though a solvent has been used. Sneaky, eh?

Direct Chemical Processes

scooping green decaf coffee in hands.

To make decaffeinated coffee with the Direct Chemical method, also called the KVW Decaffeination method, the coffee beans are first steamed to open up their pores. Next, a solvent, such as ethyl acetate, is added and soaked for hours to draw out the caffeine.

Once the time is up, the ethyl acetate is drained off, and the beans are steamed a second time to get rid of any leftover solvent.

Indirect Chemical Processes

A beaker of decaf coffee.

For coffee created using the Indirect Chemical method, the coffee beans are soaked in hot water where most of the caffeine and some flavor are leached out

The water is then separated from the beans and treated with methylene chloride. The methylene chloride combines with the caffeine and floats to the top, where it is skimmed off. 

Lastly, the flavor-laden water is added back to the beans to reabsorb. 

Natural Processes

Weighing fresh green coffee.

Natural processes don’t use solvents to remove caffeine. Two of the most popular methods to create naturally decaffeinated coffee use water and either carbon dioxide or a charcoal filter. 

Swiss Water Process

scoop of fresh green coffee.

In the Swiss Water process, green coffee beans are soaked in hot water to extract the caffeine and flavor molecules. Then, the water is run through a charcoal filter.

Because caffeine molecules are different from the flavor molecules, they get filtered out and leave behind what’s called a green coffee extract. 

After that, the green coffee extract is added back to a fresh batch of beans. Since the caffeine was removed from the extract and the flavor molecules weren’t, the caffeine again leaches out from the beans, but the flavor molecules don’t. 

That leaves a batch of green coffee beans with all the flavor and 99.9 percent of the caffeine removed, ready to be dried and roasted.

Carbon Dioxide Process

roasting fresh decaf coffee.

The Carbon Dioxide process, also called the Supercritical Carbon Dioxide method, uses liquid CO2 to extract caffeine

First, green coffee beans are soaked in hot water in a large metal pressure cooker of a container called an “extractor.” Here, the liquid CO2 is added to the beans, and when pressure is added, the caffeine molecules bind with the carbon dioxide molecules

Next, the liquid CO2 and caffeine are moved to a new container, and the pressure is released. This leaves the caffeine behind and allows the CO2 to be reused for the next batch. 

Decaffeination Methods Comparison Chart

Direct Chemical ProcessIndirect Chemical ProcessSwiss Water ProcessCarbon Dioxide Process
Coffee beans are steamedCoffee Beans are soakedCoffee Beans are soakedCoffee Beans are soaked
Uses chemicals directly on beansUses chemicals in waterUses water onlyUses water only
Ethyl acetate/methylene chloride removes caffeineEthyl acetate/methylene chloride removes caffeineCharcoal filter removes caffeineCarbon dioxide removes caffeine
Most economical methodMost common methodMost organic method, 99.9% caffeine freeMost expensive method
Targets caffeine onlyCan remove some flavor with caffeineCan remove some flavor with caffeineTargets caffeine only

Caffeine in Decaf Coffee vs Decaf Tea

decaf tea vs decaf coffee.

Regular tea, in general, has about half the caffeine of regular coffee, though varietal variations and steeping times can also affect that. The process to decaffeinate tea is similar to the Carbon Dioxide or Direct Chemical methods described above. 

The end result is similar, too. Decaf tea and decaf coffee have about the same caffeine content, usually 2 mg of caffeine per cup, or about 3 percent of the original caffeine levels.

A regular cup of regular coffee from a drip coffee maker has about 68 mg of caffeine. For an in depth look at the caffeine content of various coffee drinks, check out my article How Much Caffeine Is in Your Coffee?

Decaf coffee and decaf tea also retain the same health benefits during the decaffeination process. That’s something all coffee lovers can appreciate!

How to Choose the Best Decaf Coffee

Coffee lovers decaf.

If you’re looking for something certified organic, choose a blend that’s been decaffeinated using the Swiss Water method. This is the safest of all of the decaffeination methods and has the least amount of caffeine.

Also, look for beans that are light to medium roast. Decaf beans are more complicated to roast correctly than beans with the caffeine still intact. You may find dark roasted beans have some unexpected flavor notes.

Don’t be afraid to try a decaf blend, either. Decaf coffee beans from different areas blended together can make for a much richer, full-bodied taste that’s more balanced in nature.

Parting Thoughts

Final thoughts on decaffeination processes.

So, now you have a good idea of what decaf coffee is and how it’s made. It’s great for people with caffeine sensitivity who don’t want to give up their favorite cup of coffee or cold brew. Also, it’s good for those who want the potential health benefits that regular coffee offers without the side effects of caffeine.

Have I piqued your interest in testing out a decaf option? Search Amazon for a few Swiss Water decaf coffee options, or ask Alexa to look on your behalf!

That said, the highest quality Swiss Water decaf coffee beans will need to be purchased directly from your roaster.

Decaf Coffee FAQ

Most brewed decaf coffee has about 2 mg of caffeine or 3 percent of an average cup of regular coffee. It can never be 100 percent caffeine free.

Depending on the preparation method, caffeine content in decaf can go as high as 13 mg per cup, which is still very low considering regular caffeine levels.

It depends on the type of caffeinated coffee or tea used to create the decaf. The caffeine levels in both beverages are similar since the FDA states a beverage needs to have at least 97 percent of the caffeine removed to be defined as “decaf.”

That means a decaf coffee or tea can contain anywhere between 2 mg to 13 mg of caffeine per cup, which is not enough to trigger any adverse side effects in most people.

The energy buzz associated with regular coffee is a side effect of caffeine. Decaf coffee has about 97 percent of the caffeine removed, so it’s not likely to interrupt your sleep patterns. It won’t give you the same energy boost as a regular cup of coffee, in other words. Your safest bet is to get decaf coffee made with a Swiss Water process, as it removed 99.9 percent of the caffeine.

Unfortunately, the process of decaffeination does destroy some of the natural flavors. While people in the coffee community say decaf coffee tastes a little different from a regular cup of coffee, a good decaf from a skilled roaster will have a similar flavor profile to its caffeinated version.

Decaf coffee is an excellent alternative for people who love the experience and many health benefits of coffee but don’t want the adverse side effects of too much caffeine. 

Drinking decaf coffee may help with many health conditions. It’s been associated with a reduced risk of developing rectal cancer, some cardiovascular diseases, and even type 2 diabetes. Of course, always check with your doctor if you have questions about your health.

Without trying to provide medical advice, caffeine in regular coffee is thought to be the culprit that raises blood pressure. Other chemicals and compounds besides caffeine naturally occur in all coffee that can have a similar effect. In general, though, drinking decaf coffee usually lowers blood pressure on comparison to regular coffee.

If you have any questions about blood pressure and whether you should drink regular coffee or choose decaf, please consult your doctor. 

Even though nearly all of the caffeine is removed from decaffeinated coffee, other compounds in the coffee can cause unwanted effects if you drink a lot of it. Too much acid, for example, is also detremental.

Two or more cups of decaf a day is ideal to reap the health benefits of drinking coffee, and according to health guidelines, four or five cups a day is fine. The key is moderation in your coffee intake; only you know how your body reacts to certain foods and beverages.

People in the coffee world who drink regular coffee complain about drinking decaf coffee because they think it doesn’t taste as good. Decaf coffees can have a milder taste than regular coffee.

This stems from years ago when the original methods used to decaffeinate coffee beans leached out flavor as well. Since then, technology and processes have become more refined. Nowadays there are plenty of places where you can find a great cup of decaf coffee.

The same people are often buying low quality, pre-ground decaf coffee as well. If you want great coffee, whether decaf or regular, always buy whole bean coffee from a quality roaster.

Decaf coffee is decaffeinated in four ways: chemically, through direct solvent or indirect solvent processes using solvents such as methylene chloride, or naturally through the Swiss Water process or the carbon dioxide process.

While each of the four processes is effective and safe to use, they all enhance different flavor notes. Some are mild, others may have a more bitter taste. The consensus is that the best process is the one that tastes the best to the drinker. Try different types of decaf coffee to see which flavor profile you like the most!

Are you a fan of decaf coffee? Afraid to try it? What method do you prefer? Join the discussion in the comments below.

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