In North America, we love our coffee. According to the National Coffee Association, 56% of Americans drink coffee every single day. But sometimes, you might crave the taste and warmth of coffee without the jolt of caffeine, especially if you want to savor a coffee after dinner. It used to be that decaf coffee options were universally disappointing (and made with potentially toxic chemicals), but decaf coffee has come a long way in recent years. With a little research, you may even be able to find a decaf coffee brand that tastes as good as your regular cup of joe.
How to Choose a Decaf Replacement for Coffee
When choosing a decaf beverage so you can enjoy a warm drink without the caffeine, there are a few items to keep in mind, including your own taste preference and the process used for decaffeination.
All coffee starts out with caffeine in it, so any decaf coffee by definition has gone through some kind of decaffeination process. To count as decaf, the coffee must have 97% of its caffeine removed. The processes used to get that caffeine out can vary quite a bit, and some may use surprising chemicals.
You may have heard that the substances used to remove caffeine from decaf coffee are toxic. This belief is mainly held over from previous decaffeination methods that regularly used potentially toxic substances as solvents to remove caffeine. The methods in use today are generally much gentler and safer, but you may still be surprised about how the caffeine is removed from your coffee. Three basic methods of removing caffeine from coffee are in use today:
- Direct solvent method: In this method, the beans are softened with water, processed with a solvent to remove the caffeine, then washed with water and steamed to remove any remaining traces of the solvent. These days, rather than toxic or potentially carcinogencic chemicals like benzene or dichloromethane, carbon dioxide is generally used. The carbon dioxide penetrates the beans, removing up to 97% of the caffeine. The caffeine remaining in the carbon dioxide is recaptured and used to caffeinate other products.
- Indirect method: This method is called “indirect” because the beans never touch the solvent directly. Instead, the beans are soaked in water until the caffeine is removed. However, this leads to tasteless beans. To get the flavor back in the beans, the water the beans were soaked in is treated with a solvent, then injected back into the beans, returning the flavor but not the caffeine. Several solvents are in use today, all of them much safer than those used in previous decades. To ensure your decaf uses a solvent that occurs in nature (usually ethyl acetate, found in many fruits and vegetables), check the label for the words “naturally decaffeinated.” Methylene chloride, which may raise some toxicity concerns, is still in use, especially in Europe. Coffee decaffeinated using methylene chloride cannot be labeled “naturally decaffeinated.”
- Swiss Water Process: The Swiss Water Process is based on a 1930s Swiss discovery that used water to decaffeinate coffee, and is currently done exclusively in British Columbia, Canada (though you can buy Swiss Water decaf coffee all over the world). The process, which is certified organic, involves creating a green coffee extract by soaking green coffee beans in water until the caffeine and flavor are removed, just like in the indirect solvent process. However, in this process, the water is filtered through a carbon filter to remove the caffeine rather than being processed with a solvent. The extract is then recirculated into the beans so that the flavor is always maintained.
If you have a favorite coffee chain or local coffee shop, ask the barista to recommend a decaf product for you based on your favorite regular coffee flavor. If you enjoy a cup of decaf you’re served at a restaurant or a friend’s home, ask which brand they use. Of course, if you have a favorite brand you buy for regular home brewing, you should check to see if they have a decaf product. Most people agree that the fresher the decaf beans, the better the taste. So if you have a grinder at home, it’s best to buy decaf beans and grind them just before brewing.
Herbal tea is always an option, of course, but it doesn’t give you the same rich taste that you expect from coffee. So what about herbal coffee? Yes, you can now buy herbal “coffee,” a decaf hot drink that isn’t really coffee at all, but a blend of ingredients like herbs, fruits, grains, and nuts designed to taste like coffee. This may not be for hard-core coffee lovers, but some people swear by it. If you want to learn more, check out the popular brand Teeccino.
The Bottom Line
Sometimes you want the warm, rich taste of coffee without the caffeine. If you’re trying to cut back on your caffeine intake, try some of the options described in this article to find a decaf coffee or coffee alternative that you really enjoy.
Tell Us: Which brand of decaf do you like?