Special Feature: Products Sally Recommends
Drinking Decaffeinated Coffees
Dyed-in-the-wool caffeine drinkers, including myself, approach the prospect of drinking decaffeinated coffee with feelings of trepidation and preconceived ideas of disappointment. We've had those watery cups of bitter brew that are labeled "decaf" and find it better to skip the cup of decaf rather than partake in a less than satisfying cup of coffee. This experience can be avoided altogether, if you follow some basic decaf rules.
Decaf has gotten a bad rap because of the careless and inconsistent brewing and holding methods employed by those who serve the stuff. It doesn't have to be this way. Every so often I find it a pleasant surprise to order a cup of decaf at the end of a meal and find it to be rich and dark and every bit as satisfying as the caffeinated versions I used to chug down by the mugful. So what's the problem here?
Personally, I think some of the food and coffee establishments have yet to acknowledge the growing decaffeinated market and therefore put out a consistently meager cup. It seems to be brewed with a lighter touch (ie: less concern for a hearty, tasteful brew) so that it often tastes only a step above it's dismal cousin, decaffeinated instant coffees. To make matters worse, the pot of decaf can (and usually does) sit on a burner for much longer than the regular pot simply because decaf is not requested as much. After fifteen minutes on the warmer, the pot of decaf will begin to break down and turn bitter and flat -- just like all those awful cups of decaf we've all had. A conscientious establishment uses air pots to preserve the flavor of the coffee for a long period of time. But even the air pots loose their ability to maintain the original aromas and flavors. The solution is to make smaller, more frequent, batches of decaf.
How to Make the Perfect Cup of Decaf
These same principles can be utilized at home. If you drink decaffeinated coffee for health reasons, to cut down on your caffeine intake or because you enjoy a cup of coffee late at night but find the caffeine keeps you awake, you should expect a robust and flavorful cup of coffee. Drinking decaf doesn't mean selling out on flavor, aroma or quality. Be aware: even if you are drinking decaf, you are getting a cup of coffee that is only 96% to 98% caffeine-free.
Starting with the freshest cold water, the proper proportion of coffee grounds and a clean coffee machine will gain you a perfect cup of coffee, even if it's decaf.
How They Decaffeinate Coffee
Are there flavor differences in decaf versus caffeinated? According to the experts, decaffeinated coffee should taste the same as caffeinated coffee if the caffeine is removed properly and the flavor influencing substances are not affected. Despite the scientific data, many people swear they can taste the differences between a well-brewed cup of decaf and caffeinated coffee. I think it's more a matter of psychological resistance than physical fact. I've run my own discreet decaf taste tests on unsuspecting guests and have yet to find one who has determined that they are drinking decaffeinated coffee. Surprisingly enough, I often receive comments on how strong and satisfying the coffee is after a meal! (I make a pretty mean cup of decaf.)
The decaffeinated beans used in the United States generally originate from decaffeinating plants in Canada. They use several methods to decaffeinate coffee beans, but there are two preferred methods: removal of caffeine by either solvents or water. For those health-conscious consumers that shudder at the thought of chemicals being added to their coffee beans, there has been little evidence that the chemical used is harmful. This fact may not convince many of you to choose the chemically processed beans, but have you considered the flavor quality? Water-processed beans lack the flavor that is found in the chemically-processed beans.
One method for chemically removing the caffeine from green, unroasted beans involves the following steps. First the beans are warmed by water or steam, which opens up the pores in the bean. Then the beans are rinsed in a solution of methylene chloride which extracts the caffeine without removing the flavor enhancers. The other chemical method involves soaking the beans in very hot water for a few hours. This allows the caffeine to seep into the water. The beans are then removed from the water and methylene chloride is injected into the water where it bonds with the caffeine particles but leaves the flavor enhancers. This water is reintroduced to the beans and the flavor enhancers are reabsorbed by the beans. To most coffee experts, these two methods offer the most aroma, flavor and enjoyment.
An obvious by-product of these methods is extra caffeine. This is sold for beverage and medicinal uses, making the price per pound of chemically decaffeinated coffee less expensive than Swiss-Water Processed beans as no caffeine can be reclaimed from the process.
In the Swiss method, so called because a Swiss firm developed this system, no chemicals are used. Green beans are soaked in very hot water for several hours as in the chemical process, but the caffeine is removed by filtering the bean-soaked water through activated charcoal. The beans are returned to this "purified" water where they reabsorb the flavor enhancers.
Other Ways to Kick the Caffeine Habit
Certainly there are other, less direct methods of reducing your daily caffeine intake. Reducing the number of cups you ingest is an option, but can be difficult for the heavy coffee consumer. Or, you can selectively reduce your caffeine by cutting the beans per cup and substituting them with decaffeinated beans. Drinking a darker roast will decrease your caffeine intake as the higher roasting temperatures eliminate more of the caffeine in the bean.
For those of us who must give up the caffeine kick entirely, one or two cups of the best tasting decaffeinated coffee can be the answer. Personally, I drink the chemically decaffeinated coffees offered by my favorite roasters in the bay area: Peet's and Starbucks Coffees. They both provide a full-city roast, a darker roast than most other coffee roasters offer. The darker roast tends to cut down on acidity while boosting the flavor. Some people don't like this because they feel it tastes too "strong." I find it coffee-perfection and am delighted that both companies offer quite a range of decaffeinated coffee beans. My current favorite at Peet's Coffees is their Aged Decaffeinated Indonesian Roast: a rich, spicy bean that has been aged for several years to develop it's flavors and exotic aromas. My favorite Starbuck's is their Decaffeinated Guatemalan Antigua: a bean which is every bit as snappy and spicy as its caffeinated relative.
Stop by your favorite roaster and ask to taste their decaf coffees. Usually they are quite willing to share their knowledge. If you are in the bay area, call either of the following numbers to find the Peet's or Starbucks nearest you. Both have many locations in the area and have eager and well-informed staff who can answer your questions.
And just remember one thing: don't give up on quality or taste when you shop for that decaffeinated cup of coffee!