In an attempt to demystify the sometimes vague and pretentious world of coffee, we're introducing a sporadic column that aims to define the most basic of coffee terms. It's a hard coffee world out there, and we'd love to help be your guide through it.
Dear Coffee: How exactly does decaf coffee become decaf coffee? And why exactly is everyone hating on it?
Decaf is a beguiling beverage, seemingly a typical coffee bean lacking in the cherished hit of caffeine. With its stimulating effects mysteriously removed, however, decaf coffee has garnered a less-than-stellar reputation among both consumers and providers alike. Prone to harsh roasting and poor bean sourcing, decaffeinated coffee has become the red-headed stepchild of the coffee world, a drink ordered with shameful tones and downcast eyes.
Yes, the decaffeinating process irrevocably alters the structure of decaf coffee, but this isn't the only reason why a general stigma towards the process and its product have become so popular. Colby Barr, one of the brains behind Santa Cruz's Verve Coffee, explained that the stigma is similar to that of "non-fat milk or at times non-alcoholic beer" and thus is "perceived at a lower quality and seemingly artificial." On top of that, Barr continues, "There's also this machismo about drinking the 'real thing'."
So the world perceives decaf, and those who drink it, as spineless wimps, but that isn't all old decaf has done to turn the world against it. C.C Thompson, head roaster for Sightglass Coffee, adds, "Decaf coffee has had a long standing reputation for being bad coffee because it has been just that: bad coffee. The decaffeination process can be a great dumping ground for old, over purchased and unwanted coffees." The decaffeination process is expensive for producers and thus decaf coffee, already in on the periphery of coffee consumption, becomes more pricey for roasters like Sightglass and Verve to purchase. And with everyone sipping the decaf haterade, the average decaf bean draws less demand, and with less demand, there's less supply and thus, that supply, as Thompson says is often culled from "very average, commodity grade coffees."
Thomson explained to SFoodie that decaf coffee and caffeinated coffee are worlds apart, mainly due to the vastly different processes that bring them to our cups. "There are a handful popular of decaffeination methods, each roughly the same, involving soaking un-roasted, green coffee beans in a bath of water or pressurized CO2."
The caffeine is then removed from the solution, and the solution is then reintroduced to the coffee bean, leaving the poor little bean an entirely new creation. As Thompson explains, "A coffee that has been decaffeinated can still be great, but it will never be the same -- the color, flavor, shape, texture, aroma and physical attributes of the coffee will all change through this process."
The future of decaf isn't all grim, though. Colby Barr informed us that the processes involved in removing caffeine are improving, so green coffee beans are actually managing to retain more of their core values. "Good coffees make good decafs," Thompson told us, and this seems to be the prevailing thought of today's roasters. "Decaf drinkers are no longer being looked over. The specialty coffee industry as a whole is starting to show the same amount attention to decaf as they do any other coffee."
Good coffees from good regions are emerging from modern-day decaffeination with a greater part of their initial character in hand, allowing for the overly caffeinated to enjoy a good, flavorful cup without testing the waters of heart attack.