Posted by Rose Park Roasters Blogging Crew on 1/3/2013
Rather than go into a politically correct advertisement about how our own decaf is the best in the world and you would never know you're drinking decaf (it's better than that)- let me give you 90% of the reason why decaf coffee does not taste the same as its fully-loaded counterparts: 1. The decaffeination process itself and 2. If you have an amazing coffee, most won't't send it off to be decaffeinated. There are several ways to decaffeinate coffee. The top two that I've seen in the industry are water-process (sometimes called Swiss Water Process but the term is trademarked and others follow the same principal) and methylene chloride. The water-process style of decaffeination basically follows this principal: You take a ton of green, unroasted coffee and divide it into batches. You take the first batch and soak it in a lot of hot water for a long time to extract all of the water-soluble flavor compounds and all the caffeine. You toss those beans but keep the water. You filter out the caffeine but not the flavor compounds. You then soak the next few batches of beans in the now flavor rich but caffeine-free water. The idea is that the green coffee will give up all it's caffeine, but not it's flavor compounds because osmosis-ly it's full of flavor but there's room for caffeine (think of a club in L.A. that's "full" until the beautiful people arrive). The methylene chloride version is a little simpler. You steam the beans, rinse them with methylene chloride for a while to remove the caffeine, then steam them again to remove the methylene chloride. Both processes have their own pros and cons but the main point here is that you are definitely doing something to the beans and that something is going to dramatically alter the beans' original flavor profile. The second problem decaf drinkers face is that if importers/brokers/roasters find an excellent coffee somewhere in the world, they don't want to send it off to get all decaf-ified. To them, it would be like freeze-drying fillet mignon for beef-a-roni. While some people live in that kind of opulence, most do not.
But wait, there is good news my loyal decaf drinkers!
While nobody is going to send off their private auction-lot Esmeralda there is a lot of really, really good decaf coffee out there. You just have to find someone who is dedicated to quality, no matter if it's for regular or decaf. You know, someone who doesn't like to toot their own horn, but they are pretty awesome at roasting coffee, someplace local, the kind of guys you want to invite over for a barbecue and a beer, a roaster who's name rhymes with Nose Mark Hosters... you know, someone like that... Toot toot, ~Andrew Long Beach, CA P.S. Here's Swiss Waters' big-wordy but still kind of cool explanation of their decafeination process... And here's some science from seven years ago that may or may not be relevant to the specialty coffee industry...