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Here’s the truth about decaf


In terms of coffee, you often see trends come and go. One which is clearly here to stay is the increase in demand for quality decaf. In 2019 alone we saw an increase of 260% in decaf sales meaning one thing - people are catching on to the better processed, better tasting decaf options available.

But, plot twist - we’re not here to talk through any supposed health benefits. For us, it’s about making incredible coffee more accessible to every customer. These days, a well-sourced, delicious decaf coffee is a more common sight at home and should be a staple on every coffee menu - whatever the reason you choose to drink it.

In this post, we’re explaining what decaf is, where it comes from and why you shouldn’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it.

In the simplest way, what does decaf mean?

There is no such thing as naturally occurring decaf coffee. All coffee beans come with caffeine.

‘Decaf’ means that the caffeine has been removed from the beans and there are several (natural) methods used to do this. So decaffeinated beans are not actually 100% caffeine-free.

For the coffee to be considered ‘decaf’ most sources agree at least 95% of the original caffeine content needs to have been removed.

Different methods make different claims, but to put it in real terms, your average bar of milk chocolate contains more caffeine than a cup of decaffeinated coffee.

“For the coffee to be considered ‘decaf’ most sources agree at least 95% of the original caffeine content needs to have been removed.”

Our journey to decaf

What process is our Decaf?

In 2018 we changed our Swiss Water House Decaf to a new coffee processed using the Sugarcane E.A method. You can still read our blog post about this change.

The Swiss Water method is a patented method that can only be done in Canada.
So, this meant the beans were grown in Brazil then shipped to Canada for decaffeination, then shipped to us in the UK to be roasted.

The Sugarcane Decaf coffee is sourced and decaffeinated in Colombia and shipped directly to us. This saves over 6000 food miles per shipment and means a higher proportion of earnings is retained by the farmer. Best of all, it tastes incredible.

“This saves over 6000 food miles per shipment and means a higher proportion of earnings is retained by the farmer. Best of all, it tastes incredible.”

Fewer food miles sounds good. Any other benefits?

Other benefits include less water wastage. The Sugarcane method uses significantly less water than Swiss Water. So in that regard, there are additional environmental benefits.

So, what is the Sugarcane E.A. method exactly and why do we prefer it at Extract?

The sugarcane method uses fermented sugarcane which produces a compound called Ethyl Acetate or EA for short. It sounds a bit scary but is a naturally occurring chemical which can also be found in fruits (like the banana you have on your breakfast porridge, or the apple you snacked on yesterday afternoon). The Ethyl Acetate compound is responsible for the pleasant odour and taste of the fruit.

Locally grown sugarcane is fermented to produce Ethyl Acetate compounds. Green (unroasted) coffee is steamed then soaked in water with the EAs which remove the caffeine. The water is drained and the coffee is rinsed, re-steamed (to remove any traces of the EAs) then sent to us for roasting.

And where does it come from?

Our current Sugarcane decaf beans are grown by our long-standing partner, La Marianela – a coffee farm we’ve been working with for nearly a decade and are proud to call friends.

La Marianela is a family run business, just like Extract. Parts of the farm are treated as a dedicated nature reserve and they go above and beyond to provide workers with above-average wages, housing and education. Part of Extract’s long term strategy to support this farm is to find ways we can increase the volumes of coffee they sell and the price they earn for that coffee. Together we’ve worked on experimental lots, varietals and processing methods.

When we found a sugarcane decaffeination plant in Pitalito, Colombia, not far from La Marianela, it made sense for us to use their coffee as our house Decaf as part of our ongoing commitment to this farm.

Typically, the industry has been used to using lower quality or older coffee beans for decaffeination. These can be bought and sold in bulk which makes traceability back to individual farms almost impossible. Using coffee from La Marianela means that, in addition to growing one of our most sustainable coffee partnerships, we can improve quality and give 100% traceability from crop to cup.

Just a couple more questions

Do beans need to be roasted differently to Decaf?

Not really, no.

We find Decaf beans can be more brittle because they’ve already been through an additional process which is quite rigorous. This means that if you over-roast them they could break down inside the roaster and (along with flavour) that’s one of the reasons we don’t roast them too dark. Their natural appearance is a little darker, so when you open a bag of decaf, it is darker to look at but not to taste.

What about the chemicals I read about?

Decaf has come under scrutiny as cheaper decaffeination methods involve a lot of chemicals. Regulations are much stricter now so any compounds that get used, are removed before the coffee even comes to the UK.

In the case of our Sugarcane method, the Ethyl Acetate compound – a natural compound, is removed during the process and would never survive the roasting process anyway.

How about the CO2 method?

CO2 decaffeination is another excellent way to remove caffeine. The CO2 method is sometimes called the sparkling water method. A CO2 compound is added to a water solution that bonds the caffeine to the CO2 molecules and removes the caffeine from the beans. It’s praised for being chemical-free and having an enhanced flavour (just like Sugarcane).

Each month we sell a limited run of single-estate decaf coffees and these are often decaffeinated using the CO2 method.

So, once the beans are roasted – do I need to treat decaf any differently when making my coffee?

Short answer, no.

In an espresso machine, you can dial whole decaf beans in exactly as you would a caffeinated coffee. And, exactly like caffeinated coffee, by grinding your beans on demand rather than buying the coffee pre-ground you will get a lot more of the complexities and vibrancies of flavour if your coffee is fresh.

Some cafe and restaurant owners may feel that their decaf volumes are too low to justify an extra grinder just for decaf. But customer demand for excellent quality decaf is on the rise. An article last year in The Guardian reported sales of instant decaf were up 20%. At Extract, we’ve seen a 260% increase in decaf sales with no signs of slowing.

As it’s popularity continues to rise, the cafes and restaurants investing in making decaf better throughout their business will reap the rewards.

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