For one reason or another, we might find ourselves exploring the world of decaffeinated coffee. Some might need to avoid caffeine for medical reasons and some might simply want a safe evening option. Either way, here are some helpful facts that can help you navigate your options and confidently decide what is right for you.
Caffeine is what is known as an 'alkaloid' and is named after the coffee plant. It is present in several other plant species (i.e. tea, cacao, yerba mate, and guarana) but it is most accessible and prevalent in coffee. It serves a dual purpose in nature by fighting insects and enhancing 'reward memory' in pollinators. Something often left out of the botanical equation is how it obviously rewards the cultivator (that would be us). As the pollinator has propagated the species on a local level, the cultivator has done the same thing globally—just something to think about.
The most conventional (and least expensive) technique for removing caffeine is by chemical means. A chemical is introduced to unroasted beans which bonds to caffeine and leaves many aromatic elements intact. Inorganic solvents have fallen out of favor and mostly organic solvents are now used in this method. In specialty coffee, this has become the least attractive way of removing caffeine, due to the understandably negative stigma of 'chemicals.'
By far the most popular in specialty coffee, 'water processes' have become the alternative. In water processing (not to be confused with 'washing' which refers to fruit removal), caffeine can be removed simply by using water, carbon filtering, use of indirect organic solvents, and osmotic means. These water processes are getting more and more refined, maximizing retention of flavor.
Another technique, which is a bit too expensive to be commonplace, employs carbon dioxide at very high pressure (73 atmospheres). The super-critical state of the gas allows it to behave like a liquid solvent and pull caffeine from the beans. In the future, this may prove to grow in favor as it uses no complicated chemical solvents and leaves flavor components largely undisturbed.
Caffeine in Decaf?
The standards for decaffeination do allow for some caffeine to remain, so if you have an extreme sensitivity or other medical reason to avoid it, your best bet is to completely abstain from regular and decaf. Claims like '99.9 percent caffeine free' can be misleading since they generally refer to total coffee mass. It's like saying a house is '99.9 percent cockroach free' when there are still enough of them to contribute to a tenth of a percent of your house by mass. An average house can easily weigh 350,000 lbs, all things considered. By this standard, the house could still contain 350 lbs of cockroaches and claim this statistic.
Another issue is the use of brewing equipment that is not dedicated to the preparation of decaf. Caffeine can be quite resilient and without proper cleaning, cross contamination is a measurable side-effect.
Decaf might not satisfy the purist, but it has a purpose. We are thrilled that there is an option for those of us who might not be dangerously sensitive to caffeine but still wish to have an evening cup, for example. Caffeine, as a whole, is a mild stimulant with little to no side effects when consumed in moderation, and we are thankful that it is here for us to enjoy. We are also thankful that we have developed the technology to safely minimize it as well.