Which decaf coffee method tastes the best?

The best tasting decaf coffee is…

I wanted to find out which decaf coffee method tastes the best, and I did just that.

After spending days researching this, I discovered that supercritical carbon dioxide decaffeination produces the best tasting decaf coffee.

I had so much fun researching and writing this article, and I hope you find it as interesting as I did!

As I said, the best-tasting decaf coffee method is supercritical carbon dioxide decaffeination (sCO₂).

If you’re wondering, the 2nd-best tasting decaf coffee is produced by the Swiss Water® Process.

Here’s a great read about how decaf coffee is made.

Why is sCO₂ decaffeination the best-tasting decaf method?

sCO₂ decaffeination is the best-tasting decaf method because it only removes the caffeine and doesn’t affect the coffee’s flavor and aroma compounds.

In the decaffeination process, green beans are usually soaked to remove the caffeine. Unfortunately, this process isn’t precise and also removes the coffee solids from the beans.

Coffee solids are the aromatic and flavor compounds that give coffee its unique characteristics. This means that for the decaffeinated beans to taste like coffee, the coffee solids have to be put back.

It’s during the removing and putting back of the coffee solids that the flavor profile of the coffee gets disrupted and changed.

sCO₂ decaffeination is extremely precise and only targets the caffeine molecules in the coffee beans. Once the caffeine has been removed, the decaffeinated coffee should taste the same as before.

The only difference in taste that might be experienced is an extremely slight reduction of bitterness. Caffeine tastes quite bitter and by removing it, a small amount of bitterness is removed. 

What is caffeine?

Caffeine is a naturally occurring substance that can be found in plants throughout the world. It’s a compound in coffees, teas, sodas, chocolates, etc. that stimulates our central nervous system.

Caffeine is the world’s most widely consumed psychoactive drug according to this study.

Consuming caffeine offers many health benefits, but there are also health risks. This is why some may choose to drink decaffeinated coffee.

What is decaf coffee?

Decaffeinated, or decaf coffee, is coffee that’s had the caffeine removed. For decaf coffee, a caffeine content reduction of at least 97% is required by USDA standards.

Don’t let the name fool you though, after decaffeination, there is still about 2-7mg of caffeine in a standard cup of decaf coffee. 

The small amount of caffeine should go unnoticed in your body though. So there’s no need to feel nervous having that late-afternoon decaf coffee. 

How is decaf coffee made?

Okay, over to the serious stuff now! Put most simply, decaf coffee is made by soaking green beans to dilute and remove the caffeine from them.

The only issue is that during this process, it’s not only the caffeine that gets diluted and removed. The parts of the coffee bean that give it its unique flavor, aromatic, and textural characteristics (coffee solids) fall victim to this. 

So, to have the best-tasting decaf coffee you need a process that can either remove only the caffeine, or you need a process that can put all the coffee solids back.

What are the main decaf coffee methods?

Right now, there are four main methods that produce decaf coffee. They are Supercritical Carbon Dioxide (sCO₂) Decaffeination, the Swiss Water® Process, the Direct Method, and the Indirect Method.

Supercritical Carbon Dioxide (sCO₂) Decaffeination

  • Green beans are steamed to make them more porous, and then they are placed in a stainless steel drum and sCO₂ is added to the drum.
  • sCO₂ behaves like a gas and can pass through substances. sCO₂ also has liquid properties so it can dissolve substances.
  • The sCO₂ penetrates the green beans and attaches itself to the caffeine. Then, as the sCO₂ is drawn out of the green beans, it pulls the caffeine out with it.
  • The caffeine bonded sCO₂ is then removed from the drum, leaving decaffeinated green beans behind.
    During this process, the coffee solids are untouched. The only alteration to the coffee’s taste will be a super mild decrease in bitterness (caffeine is bitter).

Swiss Water® Process

  • Green beans are soaked in hot water, drawing the caffeine and the coffee solids out of the beans and into the water.
    The “empty” green beans are discarded. This leaves a solution of water, caffeine, and coffee solids. They call this solution the Green Coffee Extract (GCE).
  • Caffeine has large molecules, so the GCE is passed through carbon filters to remove the caffeine from the GCE.
    After this process, the GCE is mostly caffeine-free but rich in coffee solids.
  • A new batch of green beans is added to the GCE. Because the GCE is saturated with coffee solids, it can only extract the new batch of green beans’ caffeine.
  • The green beans are 99.9% decaffeinated and dried. The GCE is filtered and reused.

Direct Method

  • Green coffee beans are steamed for about 30 minutes to soften them and make them more porous.
  • Then, the beans are rinsed in a solvent for 10–12 hours. The solvent is usually ethyl acetate which can be found naturally during fruit fermentation. The other solvent used is methylene chloride.
  • The solvent permeates the coffee beans and binds to the caffeine molecules. The bonded molecules migrate through the beans’ cell membranes and out of the green bean.
  • To remove as much of the solvent as possible, the beans are then steamed and rinsed repeatedly.
    This method decaffeinates the coffee beans by approximately 97%.

Indirect Method

  • Green coffee beans are soaked in hot water for a few hours so that the caffeine and coffee solids dissolve into the water. Then, the green beans and water are separated.
  • A solvent, usually ethyl acetate or methylene chloride, is added to the mixture of water, caffeine, and coffee solids.
    The solvent’s molecules bind to the caffeine molecules and both are removed from the liquid. This leaves a mixture of water and coffee solids.
  • The original (now “empty”) green beans are added to the mixture. The beans reabsorb the coffee solids.
  • The original flavor of the coffee beans is mostly preserved and the beans are 97% decaffeinated.

What to do next?

Now that you know what the best-tasting decaf coffee method is, go out and taste it yourself!

Wynand Barnard

This is a guest post written by Wynand Barnard from TotalCoffeeBase.com

My name is Wynand and I have been obsessed with coffee for many years. I've worked as a head barista and coffee shop manager in the past and I'm excited to share my experience and knowledge with you. 

You can read more of my articles at totalcoffeebase.com.

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