Firstly, one misconception is that coffee companies produce decaffeinated coffee. However, the process is normally performed by specialised companies in Europe, the US, Canada, and South America. Secondly, another misconception is that the caffeine removal process takes place after roasting and grinding into powder. Again, it’s a misconception for a reason…because it’s wrong.
The vast majority of decaffeinated coffee is decaffeinated at the green coffee stage, earlier than most people think. If producers were to wait, the decaffeination process would remove lots of the flavour and you’d have something tasteless and not very pleasant – some have compared it to straw.
What about the process itself? Well, the most common process is to use a solvent and soak the coffee during this early stage. For example, two common solvents used in this process include ethyl acetate and methylene chloride. Some readers may recognise the latter because it’s sometimes used in degreasers and paint strippers.
On the other hand, acetic acid is one of the main ingredients of vinegar. It’s also the main component of ethyl acetate as natural fruit. The first thing people tend to notice about the ingredient is the sweet smell, and those who use nail polish remover may recognise it as it’s an important part of such products.
Regardless of the solvent, the process remains the same. To start, coffee beans are soaked in water. From here, one of the two solvents covers the beans, and these draw out the caffeine. Rather than just using the water-solvent mix once, it’s used again and again, and this is critical for keeping the coffee flavour inside the beans.
Is soaking coffee beans in these solvents safe? You wouldn’t consume nail polish remover, paint stripper, or degreaser. Don’t worry, both solvents are considered safe by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), however, you can buy naturally decaffeinated coffee here.
Other Decaffeination Methods
Although solvents are the most common method, there’s another process called the Swiss Water Method. Here, the beans are soaked in water and then strained. The secret to the technique is activated carbon since this takes away the caffeine. This technique was adored by industry experts back in the 1970s when it was first used commercially because it avoids the use of solvents. Yet, it hasn’t managed to compete with the more popular method.
Finally, another method starts with the water soaking once again but this time the beans are transferred into a sealed stainless-steel extractor. From here, liquid CO2 is pumped in at high pressure. Like with the activated carbon, the caffeine moves with the CO2 and leaves behind a decaffeinated bean.
Over the years, the quality of decaffeinated coffee has increased as producers learn to retain the flavour. Either way, these are the methods that ensure lots of decaffeinated coffee on shop shelves all over the world!