Not all decaf coffees are made equal

Decaffeinated coffee, or decaf, is a great option for those looking to reduce their caffeine intake or just to have that sweet taste of coffee at the end of the day without the night jitters. If you’re looking towards decaf coffee as an option for you, you might want to take a look at how it’s grown and how the caffeine is extracted from the bean.

What is decaf coffee and how is it made?

Decaffeinated coffee beans aren’t actually a separate plant, but are just caffeinated beans that have had the caffeine removed from them before the beans are roasted.

While we’d like to think that decaf coffee is made naturally or grown naturally because it’s a plant, most commercial decafs that you’ll find on grocery shelves and in fast-food chains are chemically processed where the raw beans are soaked in a saltwater solution and then treated with a solvent called methylene chloride which binds to the caffeine.

This solvent is also commonly found in paint-stripper, industrial solvent, spray paints, automotive cleaners, and pesticide products—and is actually made from methane gas or wood alcohol. This chemical is potentially harmful to waterways, can negatively affect animal and plant life and health, and when leached into the air, water and soil, can affect human health too. Even though the solvent is burnt away, it evaporates readily and becomes released into the atmosphere.

These methods also damage the flavour of the beans and strip away the natural oils and antioxidants that are normally associated with coffee. Along with fewer health benefits and flavour, commercial decaf coffee producers aren’t keen on ethical growing practices or fair trade for their farmers and plantPhoto by Gerson Cifuentes on Unsplash

The alternative: The Swiss Water Method

First discovered in Switzerland in the 1930s, the Swiss Water Decaf method is a simple four-step process that extracts caffeine from raw beans, but as naturally as possible and without compromising the flavour and antioxidants found in coffee beans. The four steps are:

  1. Separation: this is where hot water is used to extract the caffeine, but it also extracts a bit of the flavour as well.
  2. Filtration: The original beans are discarded and it’s actually the water that is passed through a charcoal filter. The charcoal is extremely porous so it’s able to extract the caffeine molecules from the solution, creating a decaf, green coffee bean extract.
  3. Soak/infuse: A new batch of green coffee beans is introduced into the production cycle, and soaked in the green coffee extract from the previous step. The water draws out all of the caffeine, but at the same time, the rich flavour from the original batch of beans is infused with the new beans through the water. The water is then passed through the charcoal filter again and ready to use with the next batch of beans.
  4. Dry: The beans are dried to their original form and then are ready to be roasted for specific blends. This entire process takes between 8 to 10 hours.

Swiss Water Process companies are also known to ensure sustainable farming practices are maintained, fair wages are supported, and that transparency in the supply chain is achieved. They work closely with their coffee-growing communities and make sure that they’re supporting families, individuals and environments that are crucial to the continuation of growing this crop.

It may not seem like an essential thing, but decaf or not, if most people drink coffee daily, production needs to be done as sustainably as possible. If we love coffee (and decaf) as much as we say we do, we have to consider brands and processes that will keep this plant here for the long haul.