February 26, 2024

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Everything you need to know about decaf coffee, explained by baristas

Everything you need to know about decaf coffee, explained by baristas

Decaffeinated coffee is getting better and more popular by the day. You can drink decaf into the late afternoon, enjoy multiple cups without buzzing or shaking, and you’ll still get all the health benefits of regular coffee (as long as you’re buying the right blend).

If you normally drink regular coffee and you’ve tried decaf, you probably didn’t enjoy it. I’ll be honest: historically, most decaf tastes like chemicals, dust, nor nothing at all. This is largely as a result of cheap decaffeination processes. Many of these use the same chemicals that are in paint stripper, so it’s no surprise the taste is pungent and the health benefits are minimal.

Whilst these unappetizing methods established a bad reputation for decaf, there are newer, gentler methods. Admittedly, these can be expensive, but they make decaf coffee healthier. They preserve all the oils, antioxidants, and fiber that you would drink from a regular cup of coffee.

As a barista, I’ve done my research on decaf. Even using the best coffee maker, I had struggled to work with a bean or blend that rivalled my normal coffee. Since speaking with various roasters and coffee companies, I’ve found answers to my questions. Here’s the best decaf beans on the market; the answers to your health questions; and advice on the best way to brew it. Now you can enjoy a cup of joe at any time of day.

How does decaffeination work?

Coffee beans on a table

People have been decaffeinating coffee from as early as 1903. Ludwig Roselius, a German coffee merchant, used benzene (a carcinogenic solvent) to take the buzz out of coffee. But the process has changed a lot in 120 years. These days it can be divided into two categories: chemical and water decaffeination.

The chemical process uses either the Indirect Solvent Method or the Direct Solvent Method. Kayla Stavridis, Head of Marketing at Barista HQ, explained to me that these processes essentially use ‘steam with a solvent (usually ethyl acetate or methylene chloride) to strip the caffeine from green coffee beans before they are roasted’. However, these solvents take a lot of coffee’s healthy oils and flavors with them. This method is cheaper, but it’s really harsh on coffee beans.

coffee beans

coffee beans

The second, more expensive process, is the Swiss Water Process. I spoke with Ashley Palmer-Watts, professional chef and founder of Artisan Coffee Co. He’s been doing research into decaffeinated coffee, and worked with Q Graders (elite professionals who evaluate coffee) to make the best, most nourishing decaffeinated coffee on the market. He explained the Swiss Water Process to me. ‘You have your beans in a chamber and you run caffeinated water over the beans. The caffeine travels from in the bean to the greater mass of caffeine in the water through osmosis. A machine captures the water, refills the chamber and keep the process going until the caffeine is pretty much out of the bean’.

He told me that this process is really expensive and it takes a long time but he thinks it’s worth doing. ‘It leaves all the good stuff in the bean, all the oils, all the things that you want to develop in the bean when you roast it. These are the parts that will develop into the flavor that we know as coffee’.

I tried some of his decaffeinated coffee. Called The Dreamer, it was the best decaffeinated coffee I’ve ever had. Ashley told me ‘almost nobody who drinks normal coffee likes decaf, so I wanted to make something that everyone could enjoy’. His coffee was light and floral with notes of honey. Even better, it didn’t damage my sleeping pattern, even when I had it mid-afternoon.

If you need to convince someone that decaf coffee is tasty, good quality decaffeinated beans are the way to do it. Here are some of my favorites:

Costa Rica Whole Bean

With floral and fruity notes, this Costa Rica decaf is a winning bean for me. Volcanica use the Swiss Water Process and the proof is in the cup: it’s a full-bodied, smooth cup of coffee. I like this Ethiopian bean too.

Seattle’s Best

Well-balanced and light, this decaf is made from Arabica beans. It’s well priced, but has the flavors of a premium coffee. It has some earthy notes and tastes well-rounded and fruity. I’d recommend it in a French press.

Kicking Horse Whole Bean

This tastes like the real deal. It’s a dark roast, flavorful, and robust. It has chocolatey and nutty notes, which brew really well in all coffee makers, even in espresso and bean to cup machines.

Brewing Methods

A pour over coffee maker

A pour over coffee maker

You can buy your decaf exactly as you would normal coffee: as beans, grounds, or pods. This means that you can brew them in exactly the same way that you would your normal coffee. I’ve used it across a range of different types of coffee makers and found that decaf is best in pour-over, drip coffee makers, or French presses.

Maurice Contrearas, CEO and Founder of Volcanica Coffee Company, told me that the Swiss Water Process can result in ‘your beans containing less soluble matter, resulting in a lighter flavor. The best way to remedy this is to slow down the brewing process, giving your coffee more time to extract and bloom. We recommend using a slightly finer grinder or using slightly more coffee with your preferred brewing method’. That’s why I always recommend the pour-over, drip, or French press coffee makers over more intense espresso machines. You can still use these coffee makers, but be sensitive to the taste of your coffee and ready to adapt your coffee ratios and brew times.

If you buy decaffeinated K-Cups, it’s likely that the company will have adjusted the bean blend so that you can taste the well-balanced coffee flavors. If you are brewing yourself, make sure to adjust how you brew, whether it’s with more coffee or a longer time, because it isn’t identical to regular coffee.

These are the best coffee makers for decaf coffee:

Moccamaster KBGV

This drip coffee maker is luxurious. It’s really quiet and meets the qualifications set by the Specialty Coffee Association and the European Coffee Brewing Center. Trust us, you can taste it.

Our Technivorm Moccamaster KBGV Coffee Maker review has more details.

OXO 8 Cup

This is at the top of our drip coffee maker guide, because it’s excellent value. It makes straightforward, great coffee and meets the Speciality Coffee Association’s Golden Cup Standard.

Our OXO 8-Cup Coffee Maker has more details.

Chemex

For ultra-smooth coffee that can cater for up to eight people, the Chemex is the perfect choice. You can use it to make cold brew coffee as well as hot, regular brews. It’s easy to clean and you can keep it in your refrigerator too.

Kalita Wave

Chic and small, the Kalita Wave is has a devoted following. It’s one of the best pour-overs available, especially for single servings of coffee. The traditional design delivers a smooth brew every time.

Espro P7

This is our favorite French press. It is top-quality, double-walled, and has a stainless steel filter, Your coffee will never be grainy or cold. Plus, you can use it to make a killer cold brew. It’s expensive, but worth it.

Bodum Chambord

The Bodum French press is all about elegance. It’s easy to use and even easier to clean. The double filter makes a smooth cup of coffee, so we can guarantee that you’ll be pleased with your coffee results.

For all these machines, you can buy pre-ground decaffeinated coffee. However, your coffee will taste better if you buy it as a whole bean and grind it yourself, just before you use it. The fresher your coffee is, the better it tastes. For that reason, I would recommend buying a good coffee grinder. Here are my favorite models, each suited to a different kitchen and coffee.

Fellow Ode

This grinder is the best in our buying guide. The flat burrs produce evenly sized coffee grounds, without creating much heat. It’s chic, sturdy, and not too big either.

1Zpresso JX-PRO

If you want a quiet, competent, manual grinder, this is the one for you. It makes consistent sized coffee grounds and it’s totally portable – perfect for holidays.

KitchenAid Burr

KitchenAid make the most simple grinder on the market. It’s consistent and doesn’t struggle with static or overheating. It’s basic, but brilliant.

The Difference

A chemex pour over coffee maker

A chemex pour over coffee maker

There isn’t much taste difference between good decaf coffee and normal coffee. It’s likely that your decaf will be lighter and more delicate than a caffeinated coffee, because it’s gone through one more stage of processing.

With more labor will come higher prices. Your decaf will inevitably cost more money, but if you need to cut back on caffeine, I would say it’s worth it. Ashley, from Artisan Coffee Co,said that that he has tried thousands of decaffeinating methods at various prices. Even though he wanted to save money, the cheaper methods never tasted as good. If you care about quality coffee, you’ll have to make the investment.

Health Benefits

I asked this question to health experts, as well as coffee experts to get a reliable answer. Everybody told me that good quality decaf comes with the same benefits of regular coffee. Maurice Contreas, CEO and Founder of Volcanica Coffee, says ‘both decaf and regular coffee can boost your metabolism, lower your risk of heart disease, lower your risk of type two diabetes, and some studies show it can reduce your risk of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease’.

‘Decaf coffee may be especially healthy for those who cannot tolerate caffeinated coffee. The lower part of the stomach is also not as stimulated with decaf coffee, because it tends to be lower in acidity’. If your have gastritis symptoms, decaf coffee can really improve your day-to-day life.

Good quality decaf coffee can come with the same health benefits of normal coffee. It’s still packed with fiber and antioxidants. Those who are trying to reduce their caffeine intake, but still want that delicious coffee flavor will find that decaf is a much healthier alternative. As with all things, it should still be consumed in moderation.

FAQs

Does decaf coffee still contain caffeine?

Experts all told me that decaf coffee still contains low levels of caffeine, but in the same that dark chocolate and cocoa have caffeine. There’s trace amounts. If you’re having trouble sleeping, it might not be the wisest idea to have a decaf coffee before bed, but you can drink them much later in the day than you could with a normal coffee.

Is decaf coffee healthy?

Good quality decaf coffee will provide all the health benefits of normal coffee, just without the acidity and caffeine hit. Gentle methods of extraction will not damage the antioxidants or oils in your coffee beans.

What are the pros and cons of decaf coffee?

Decaf coffee is a brilliant drink for you if you like the taste of coffee, but you don’t want the caffeine. The only downside is that it will cost you more money, because there is another stage of processing that takes place between the bean and your cup.

My Verdict

A cup of coffee with milk marbling in it

A cup of coffee with milk marbling in it

If you love coffee for the taste, decaf coffee is a brilliant way to keep drinking it late into the afternoon. Lots of cheaper decafs will have used chemical or harsher methods of decaffeination, so always look for the Swiss Water Process. If you buy good quality beans, you’ll enjoy a light and flavorful cup without the acidity and buzz of a regular cup of coffee.