Decaf: Specialty Coffee’s Black Sheep

Decaf: Specialty Coffee’s Black Sheep

We’ve all seen the slogan “Death Before Decaf” emblazoned upon any a variety of merchandise. People wear this slogan with pride, subtly or not so subtly suggesting that decaf coffee is for the weak or at least sub par to its caffeine loaded counterpart. Why such vitriol and mindless keeping of the status quo when it comes to the dirty word of the specialty coffee industry? As is the case with a number of topics in specialty coffee, the origination of decaffeination is shrouded in a bit of mystery, but we do know that around 1903 is when the process began. A German merchant by the name of Ludwig Roselius started decaffeinating coffee motivated by the belief that his father died from poisoning as result of drinking too much coffee. Roselius’ process involved steaming the coffee beans with a brine solution, followed by benzene. Well, wouldn’t you know it that the organic compound benzene was later found to be a carcinogen. And thus the demonization of decaf begins. Lucky for us, we have come a long way since 1903, and there are a variety of ways to enjoy and ensure a high quality, and caffeine-free coffee experience.

Most decaf coffees are known for having that “flat” or “chemical taste” but not so at Sump. Our decaf offering is a Colombia Sugar Cane E.A. process. As is the case with all our coffees, we source high quality, high scoring coffees and have chosen this method due to its derivation from more natural sources as opposed to the more common solvent methylene chloride. As is the case with direct solvent based decaffeination, the process starts by submitting the coffee to a condition of steam, swelling the bean to almost double its original size to allow for easier and more thorough caffeine extraction. This is where the E.A. or ethyl acetate part comes in. The ethanol used in this process is derived from the fermentation of sugar cane rather than a synthesis of unnatural chemicals. This naturally occurring ethanol, also found in ripening fruits, is then mixed with acetic acid to create the decaffeinating solvent. The beans are then submerged in a wash of water and ethyl acetate that bonds with the salts of the chlorogenic acids. Effectively, the E.A. extracts the caffeine while leaving the other flavor compounds of the coffee intact. Yay! Once the coffee has been fully saturated, the wash is drained away and repeated until the coffee reaches a minimal decaffeination level of 97%. The last step in the process is a final steaming to remove any remaining ethyl acetate.

Now that may or may not have been too much “sciency” information, but essentially we choose this process for several reasons. First and foremost, we find that it preserves the unique taste and quality of the coffee considering the elevation, terroir and processing. This coffee has a delicious sweet and savory quality. It honestly makes me think of traditional trail mix mingled with the brightness of citrus fruits and a touch of lively acidity that seems to be lacking in quite a few of the decaf coffees that I have tasted. Secondly, Colombia grows sugarcane plentifully, and this allows for onsite decaf processing rather than having to send the coffee off to British Columbia or something (see Swiss Water Process), allowing further employment within specialty coffee.

Whether you are desiring an enjoyable after-dinner coffee experience sans caffeine, you have a caffeine intolerance, or you are simply ready to throw off the pretentious bravado of “I only drink coffee with caffeine!” mentality, you can rest assured that we have you covered at Sump Coffee.

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