The Decaf Decoded: How is Coffee Decaffeinated?

Decaf Coffee

Despite the cry of some coffee aficionados that coffee without caffeine is not worth having, many people choose to drink decaf coffee every day. According to Scientific American “approximately 12 percent of total worldwide coffee consumption” is of decaf coffee, which amounts to brewing millions of pounds of decaffeinated coffee beans every year.

And while the answer to the age old question “does decaf have caffeine?” is yes, the very low caffeine content in decaffeinated coffee is a great alternative for those who don’t want caffeine’s side effects but still want to enjoy a decent cup.

Before we discuss the process of decaffeinating coffee, let’s take a quick look at the top reasons decaf drinkers give for choosing decaf over fully-caffeinated coffee.

Why Choose Decaf?

Most people choose decaf because they don’t want the effects of caffeine but still want to enjoy the taste of coffee or the coffee ritual. Some people are also decaf drinkers for social reasons—as special as coffee shop vibes are, hanging out at a coffee shop with friends and without coffee you can drink is a bummer.

Some common personal reasons to drink decaf include the following:

  • Caffeine sensitivity: while caffeine is safe for the majority of people to drink in moderation, some individuals can actually experience heart palpitations and anxiety with as little as 15 mg of caffeine. For reference, a small 6oz cup of coffee typically contains about 68 mg of caffeine.
  • Insomnia: not everyone can drink a cup of coffee in the evening and still manage to go to sleep on time. And since the half-life of caffeine in your bloodstream is about 4-6 hours, a 100 mg cup of coffee at 5pm could still leave 50 mg of caffeine keeping you alert at 11pm or later (depending on sensitivity). For anyone who wants a comforting cup of coffee in the afternoon or evening (coffee with dessert, anyone?), decaf coffee is ideal.
  • Pregnancy: while most pregnant women aren’t told to stop drinking coffee altogether, researchers and medical experts recommend a caffeine limit of about 150-200 mg per day. For those that normally drink more than one 8-12 oz coffee per day, decaf can provide a great way to keep up the routine without passing those limits.

Fun fact: even after undergoing the decaffeination process, decaf coffee still contains antioxidants, which are thought to help reduce inflammation in the body. Caffeine isn’t the only thing that makes coffee special!

With reasons for drinking decaf out of the way, we’re going to talk about how and when decaf coffee was discovered, how the decaffeination process works, how much caffeine is in decaf coffee, and how to get a better cup of decaffeinated coffee. Let’s get started:

Who Created Decaf Coffee and When?

Trailblazers in Coffee Innovation

Pioneers of Decaff Coffee: Runge & Roselius

Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge portrait circa 1860

Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge
portrait circa 1860

Ludwig Roselius by Nicola Perscheid c1905

Ludwig Roselius
by Nicola Perscheid c1905

Did you know that we have a coffee-loving poet’s insomnia to thank for the first decaffeination experiment?

In 1820, caffeine was isolated from coffee for the first time by a scientist named Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge. Runge performed the extraction at the request of the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a well-known coffee enthusiast, who wanted to know why his beloved coffee habit was keeping him awake at night.

However, the process was actually refined for commercial purposes by a merchant named Ludwig Roselius over 80 years later. After a green coffee shipment experienced an accident at sea and got swamped by seawater in 1903, Roselius discovered that the coffee was still drinkable even though the jolt was gone (we’re not sure we would have tried that brew, but we’re glad Roselius did!). Seeing the market potential for the product, Roselius got a patent for his decaffeination process in 1906.

In other words, the world has already been drinking decaf for over 100 years!

We don’t use the process Roselius invented anymore, but several ways to decaffeinate coffee have been invented since 1906. Let’s take a quick look at them:

How is Decaf Coffee Made?

Decaffeination is a process that happens after the coffee fruit has been picked and processed into green coffee but before it’s actually roasted. Prior to decaffeination, the outer skin and pulp of the coffee fruit is removed, and the insides are processed and dried. The inner bean is milled to remove the parchment layer on the outside before it reaches the green coffee state. At this point, it’s ready to be put through the decaffeination process.

In order to make the caffeine in coffee beans soluble (able to be dissolved), green coffee is first soaked in a solvent (this can be water or a chemical solution). Then, the solvent is removed and the coffee beans are rinsed and dried.

Here are some of the solvents that are (or have been) used in the decaffeination process:

  • Benzene: this was the original solvent used by Roselius, but it’s no longer used commercially (another fun fact: benzene is now known as a carcinogen, which isn’t something you want in your daily brew…glad somebody already figured that out!)
  • Ethyl acetate: one of the most common solvents for decaffeination in both coffee and tea, ethyl acetate is actually evaporated out of the green coffee before the beans are washed a final time to remove any lasting traces of the solvent.
  • Methylene chloride (dichlormethane): similar in function to ethyl acetate, methylene chloride is also a recyclable solvent, meaning that nearly all of it can be recovered from the green coffee after the decaffeination process and used again for a lower environmental impact.
  • Supercritical carbon dioxide (CO2): supercritical carbon dioxide processing is expensive but very effective, lowering the caffeine content by about 95%-99%. For this method, green coffee is soaked in liquified carbon dioxide then brought up to extremely high pressure over several hours. Afterwards, the CO2 is recaptured through one of several different methods, leaving the green coffee free of any residual solvent. However, supercritical carbon extracts more compounds from coffee than just the caffeine, so the health benefits of decaf produced by this method are somewhat reduced.
  • Swiss Water® process: this patented process removes up to 99.9% of caffeine with no chemical solvents, but the cost is very high compared with more common methods. Still, it’s a step up from supercritical CO2 since caffeine is supposedly the only compound that gets removed.

Most of these processes use multiple rounds of solvent baths over several hours, but none of them leave an appreciable trace of solvent in the coffee. And since all of these processes are much more refined than they were back in the early 1900s, the taste of the original green coffee beans isn’t affected all that much (if at all). We’ve definitely come a long way from seawater-soaked cargo shipments, haven’t we?

But how much caffeine is left after all that solvent processing and washing? We’ll cover that briefly in the next section:

How Much Caffeine Is in Decaffeinated Coffee?

The industry standard for all decaffeination processes is to keep decaf coffee’s caffeine content  lower than 10mg per 6oz cup of coffee. On average, decaf coffee contains about 2-15 mg of caffeine per 8 ounce cup (vs 80-100 mg in a cup of regular coffee). That’s about the same or less than the caffeine content of a single chocolate-covered coffee bean.

How Do You Make a Great Cup of Decaf Coffee?

We mentioned the poet Goethe earlier. By all accounts, that guy was a coffee fanatic (we might even call him a coffee evangelist), but even he had to admit that caffeine wasn’t always the best choice. So how do you make a really good cup of decaf coffee? Well, the secret to making decaf coffee great isn’t really a secret. It’s just a fact: the higher the quality of your beans, the better your coffee is going to be.

Decaf Colombia coffee
Our Decaf Columbia Excelso offers a rich, satisfying flavor without the caffeine buzz.

So do craft coffee roasters like Driven Coffee have a decaf coffee bean option? You bet! We aren’t the only ones who like a great cup of coffee later in the day, and we know many of our customers have their own reasons for drinking decaf, too.

Our Decaf Columbia Excelso is a 100% Arabica Specialty Grade coffee, handpicked and wet-processed before beginning the decaffeination process. This Columbian coffee is decaffeinated with water and ethyl acetate (which we mentioned earlier as an industry standard solvent) and finished off with an extra steam bath. The decaffeinated coffee is then dried and given a good polishing before shipping out to our Minnesota roastery.

We take the final product to a perfect medium roast that is pleasantly balanced and low in acidity. You can enjoy Decaf Columbia Excelso exactly the same way you would our regular coffees (but without the jitters).

You don’t have to drink full caffeine coffee to enjoy the aroma and silky-smooth taste of high quality coffee. Give Decaf Columbia Excelso a try and experience a better way to do decaf!

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