Decaf Coffee and The Swiss Water Process
Delicious coffee without the caffeine
There are upwards of 10,000 different organic compounds in coffee, but there's only one that everyone can name: Caffeine. Caffeine is central to coffee's enduring popularity. Its well-known stimulant properties make coffee the go-to pick-me-up for billions of people worldwide.
There's a lot to love about coffee besides caffeine, though. Some coffee-lovers for reasons of health or preference don't want the caffeine. So how can you create caffeine free coffee? More importantly, how can you produce decaffeinated coffee while preserving the flavor, the aroma and the health benefits of coffee? Let's look at some of the different decaffeination methods.
Coffee can be decaffeinated in a number of ways, some involving chemical solvents and some employing natural processes.
Solvent-based methods are common and inexpensive, but they use potentially dangerous chemicals like methylene chloride or ethyl acetate. These methods effectively remove approximately 97% of the caffeine, but they don't do a great job of preserving the flavor of the coffee.
Here at The Coffee Store, we prefer naturally processed decaf. All our decaf coffee is decaffeinated using either the Swiss Water Process, the Mountain Water Process or the CO2 method.
Swiss Water Process
Considered the gold standard of decaffeination methods, the Swiss Water Process uses only one ingredient: fresh water.
Developed in the 1980's by Swiss firm Coffex SA, Swiss Water Decaf was the first commercial decaffeination process that was totally chemical free. It uses Green Coffee Extract (GCE) which is simply a fresh water solution of all of the water-soluble components in green (ie: unroasted) coffee beans except for caffeine. When green coffee beans are soaked in a heated bath of GCE, the caffeine in the beans is drawn out by osmosis. The other water-soluble components - the ones that give the coffee its flavor and aroma and cup quality and health benefits - remain in equilibrium with the GCE so they are retained in the green coffee beans.
The GCE that has absorbed the caffeine is run through special charcoal filters that remove only the caffeine, leaving the other dissolved compounds in place. The same solution can be used again, and the process is repeated. After several cycles, 99.9% of the caffeine has been removed from the green coffee. It's then dried, bagged and ready to roast.
Interestingly, the same GCE can be used again and again, even on coffees of different origins. While different coffees will have subtle differences in composition, the basic balance of amino acids, carbohydrates, minerals and other organic compounds is the same. After every cycle, the GCE is monitored for health and balance and typically can be used indefinitely.
Today, the Swiss Water Process decaffeination plant is located in Vancouver, BC. They have greatly refined their decaffeination process since its inception in Switzerland in the 1980's. They use the highest quality water from glacial sources in the mountains of British Columbia and they return most of the water they consume to the local community supply as clean water. Their team of scientists and engineers, baristas and coffee graders have earned their reputation as industry leaders in pursuit of the tastiest decaf.
Mountain Water Process
Similar to the Swiss Water Process, the Mountain Water Process is used at the Descamex plant in Mexico. Their claim to fame is their water. Sourced from glaciers atop the Pico de Orizaba Mountain, the water is some of the purest in North America.
Like the Swiss Water Process, Mountain Water Process coffee uses a solution of fresh water and dissolved solids from green coffee, minus the caffeine. There are no chemicals, and the caffeine can be 99.9% removed without removing the essential flavor components of the coffee.
The CO2 method has been in use since the 1970's, but technological developments have led to its recent resurgence. In this method, green coffee is soaked in water in order to make it more open to extraction. The soaked coffee beans are placed in a pressurized drum with CO2 at approximately 1000psi of pressure and 200 degrees Fahrenheit (93 degrees Celsius). Under these conditions, the CO2 is a liquid known as 'supercritical CO2'.
In the span of several hours, this supercritical CO2 binds to 97% of the caffeine in the green coffee. When it is released into an unpressurized drum, the CO2 evaporates and leaves behind the caffeine. The coffee is decaffeinated, and the caffeine can be used elsewhere.
Comparing Water Decaf, CO2 Decaf and Chemical Solvent Decaf
Water process decaf (Swiss Water Decaf Coffee and Mountain Water Decaf Coffee) is the clear winner on taste. The process comes remarkably close to removing all of the caffeine and nothing else. There is a nonzero impact to the structure of the coffee bean, and this does impact the flavor somewhat, but much of the nuanced cup character is preserved. In fact, without the overarching bitterness of the caffeine itself, these coffees can be more expressive in the cup than they were before decaffeination.
CO2 method coffee can also be quite tasty, but its flavors tend to be somewhat more muted when compared to the original green coffee. This is because the CO2 binds to some of the other compounds besides caffeine. The result is generally a good, somewhat mild coffee. The bean structure stays fairly intact, so CO2 decaf roasts up much like fully caffeinated coffee does. It retains its natural oils and has a better shelf life than the other methods. Another benefit is that, unlike with water decaf, the extracted caffeine can be repurposed.
Chemical solvent decaf has its advantages. It is accessible and affordable. Trace amounts of chemicals left on the beans are well below acknowledged dangerous levels. Overall, it just doesn't cup as well as the natural methods and the use of potentially harmful chemicals is concerning.
The Coffee Store. Our Decaf Offerings
If you visit our Decaf Collection on mauicoffee.com, you'll find a variety of Hawaiian and international decaf selections. After reading about different decaffeination methods, you might be wondering which ones we use. Here's what's in stock at the time of this writing - feel free to contact us anytime with any questions:
100% Decaf Kona Estate: Swiss Water Processed in Vancouver, BC
100% Decaf Ka'anapali Estate: CO2 processed in Hawaii
Decaf Espresso: A variety of Swiss Water and Mountain Water coffees from different Latin American origins
Blends and Flavored Decaf: Anchored by our water process international selections, blends also contain Hawaiian decafs listed above.
Enjoy a cup
The next time you want some yummy coffee without the caffeine, you have good options. It is possible to enjoy the experience of good coffee with or without caffeine. Responsibly sourced, expertly roasted, lovingly prepared coffee will always be wonderful. You just might decide to extend your coffee habit to the evening hours... Enjoy!