Coffee has long been celebrated for its stimulating effects due to caffeine. In fact, the original Arabic term قَهْوَة (qahwa) alludes to it being a ‘stealer of sleep’ as coffee was popularly used to maintain alertness during late-night religious ceremonies conducted by Sufi mystics. Throughout history, it gained popularity in both Islamic and Christian cultures over alcohol because of its stimulating, rather than inhibitory, effects. However, not all coffee drinkers see this well-known side effect as beneficial; in fact, some may avoid coffee altogether because of its impact on their sleep.
Is Decaf 'Real' Coffee?
Decaf coffee, or decaffeinated coffee, is a controversial subject within some coffee-loving circles. Many might think it isn’t ‘real coffee’ while others might wonder if it is a special genetic modification of coffee, somewhat akin to seedless watermelons. Both of these ideas are wrong. Decaffeinated coffee is actual coffee and all modern decaffeination processes are performed on naturally caffeinated green beans after harvesting and before roasting
So how does it work?
Caffeine as a chemical compound is very water soluble, similar to sugar or salt. The general idea of any decaffeination process is to dissolve the caffeine out into a liquid solvent then remove the solvent or use another intermediate substance to absorb the caffeine. This also means, as with any chemical process, the reaction is not complete; in other words, there will always still be some caffeine, typically ranging from 2-5% of the original amount remaining. In that sense, decaffeinated coffee is actually very low caffeine and not exactly caffeine free.
Talk of ‘chemical processes’ may put some health-minded coffee drinkers ill at ease; however, the most common method of decaffeination, known as water processing, uses all natural substances including water (which acts as a solvent) and charcoal (which captures the caffeine).
Unfortunately, charcoal captures all kinds of chemical compounds from the beans which may impact flavor. Caffeine-targeted solvents such methylene chloride are used in the direct solvent method where caffeine is extracted by the solvent itself with no intermediate required. Most dramatic and exciting is perhaps the supercritical carbon dioxide method which forces carbon dioxide into a liquid-like state at pressures hundreds of times greater than atmospheric pressure so it can act as a highly effective caffeine solvent.
To dive into the nitty-gritty details of these processes, check out this article from Scientific American. And don’t be too put off by talk of ‘chemical processes’ - remember, the act of brewing itself is a chemical process!
Potential Benefits of Decaf
Decaffeinated coffee also has potential flavor benefits. Caffeine itself is very bitter and contributes this to the flavor profile. By removing the caffeine, one effectively removes a major bitter component. Of course, proper brewing techniques can help reduce bitterness overall, and some might view caffeine’s contribution as an essential part of the flavor. However, for those who like the smell of coffee but not the taste, a quality origin decaf roasted by your local coffee roaster might be worth a try!
As always, if you're looking for quality decaf, or any finely roasted coffee, check out your local coffee roaster using the Van. Island Coffee Tour Map. Travel safe and brew on!
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About the Curator
Joshua Gillingham is an author, board game designer, and coffee lover from Vancouver Island. He curates the Vancouver Island Coffee Tour. For questions or comments about VICT, map updates, or roaster openings and closures, send him a note via the community contact form.