In Defense of Decaf

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Many of the more macho coffee drinkers think that all decaffeinated coffee is beside the point. "Why bother?" they ask.

But those who value the taste of coffee as well as the stimulation may disagree. Then, there are those people who, despite their love and appreciation of coffee, can't tolerate much caffeine; others, who tolerate it well in the early part of the day, can't sleep if they drink coffee later in the day. Caffeine metabolism varies widely among individuals. Generally, men process caffeine faster than women, especially pregnant women, who are slowest. The liver metabolizes caffeine, so age and liver health also affect one's tolerance. (See "Caffeine and Decaf" in the curator's Joy of Coffee , or the Wikipedia entry on caffeine.)

All this brings us to decaffeinated coffee.

All decaffeination methods adversely affect flavor, but careful selection of green beans along with competent roasting and brewing can produce a cup that may fool the experts.

As recently as the mid-'80s, people were drinking more decaf, thinking that caffeine was bad for them. As more and more research showed the health benefits of coffee, people began to switch back to caffeine. Sales of decaf in the late '80s for some roasters were as high as 25 percent of total coffee sales. Today, among both commercial and specialty roasters, the percentage is more like 10 to 15: lower, but still a significant portion of coffee drinking.

Please suspend any chemo-phobia you may have while reading this. Don't let the technical words for chemicals put you off, and don't play into the hands of the irresponsible scare tactics of unscrupulous advertisers of Swiss Water-process decaffeination.

There are four main methods of decaffeination in wide use today, each named for the solvent used: di-hydro-oxide (aka water), ethyl acetate, supercritical CO2, and methylene chloride (dichloromethane in Europe). Even if you remember your high school chemistry, the words may be unfamiliar, but keep that chemo-phobia in check. (A new method using ultraviolet light is coming to the market. Don't get your hopes up--poor flavor, so far.)

All methods produce a range of quality primarily due to bean selection (garbage in = garbage out) and process temperature, which affects the speed and thus the cost of processing. The American standard for decaffeinated coffee is to remove 97 percent of the original caffeine. Since caffeine content of individual coffees varies widely (see my earlier post on the topic), the amount of residual caffeine will also vary. Unfortunately, all decaffeination methods adversely affect flavor, but careful selection of green beans along with competent roasting and brewing can produce a cup that may fool the experts.

For decades, we have preferred coffees decaffeinated with methylene chloride (MC) because time after time, year after year, they have produced the most flavorful cup. The method is simple enough. First, steam swells the beans to make it easier for the caffeine to be removed. The solvent is then circulated through the beans and then into distillation to remove the caffeine and wax that have been removed from the beans. The cleansed solvent is recirculated and re-distilled until the caffeine has been removed. The beans are then rinsed with water and vacuum-dried.

The most sensitive test for detecting residual MC detects as little as one part per million. I have never seen a test result that detects any amount in specialty decaf. Furthermore, the boiling point of the solvent is 104 degrees F and coffee is roasted at 375 to 425 degrees F. Any remaining solvent, if there were any, would be vaporized during roasting. MC has been eliminated from cosmetics and has stringent worker safety regulations in Europe, but the procedures used in coffee processing and roasting leave nothing to cause any concern.

Most important, after safety, is taste. MC is the most selective solvent, leaving the greatest coffee flavor in the beans.

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Jerry Baldwin is co-founder of Starbucks in Seattle, where he was the first roaster and coffee buyer. More

Gerald Baldwin purchased Peet's Coffee and Tea in Berkeley, California, in 1984, and worked diligently to sustain the vision of the founder, Alfred Peet. He remains involved as a member of the board of directors. Jerry was a co-founder of Starbucks in Seattle, where he was the first roaster and coffee buyer. He remained involved until 1987 when he sold the company of eight stores. He accepts no credit (or blame) for the ensuing twenty-odd years. He also serves as a member of the board of TechnoServe a non-profit NGO working to alleviate poverty in Africa and Latin America. He has also been Chairman and Trustee of Coffee Quality Institute and President and Director of Association Scientific Internationale du Café (ASIC). Baldwin is a recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Specialty Coffee Association of America www.scaa.org, where he served as a director of the SCAA, and the the founding chairman of its Technical Standards Committee. Jerry was honored as Coffeeman of the Year for North America by Tea & Coffee Trade Journal, and he is an honorary member of the Kilimanjaro Specialty Coffee Growers Association, known as Kilicafe. Baldwin was a founding director of Red Hook Ale Brewery and a founding contributor of the American Institute of Wine and Food. He writes in Sonoma County, California, a few miles from M.F.K. Fisher's home in Glen Ellen, looking over his small vineyard. Jerry and his wife, Jane, produce small crops of olive oil and Zinfandel in the Valley of the Moon.
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