In Defense of Decaf

ethyl acetate or carbon dioxide (CO2). Neither method has consistently produced satisfying flavor in the cup. Ethyl acetate, a synthetic fruit ester, leaves a fruity aftertaste in the coffee--unfortunately nothing like the berry and citrus flavors we find in East African coffees. And we had high hopes for the CO2 process in the early '90s. Carbon dioxide is the carbonation in sparkling water, but it is forced into the coffee at pressures well in excess of 1000 pounds per square inch to extract the caffeine. Perhaps it's the pressure that also forces out the coffee flavor.

The last method to discuss is dihydro-oxide --water. At one time, water process was the most damaging to coffee flavor. That general statement is no longer true, due to improvements in the processing by some companies. Although some water-process decaf has flavor approaching methylene chloride (and a relatively new North American company is making great strides in cup quality), further development will be required before it can be methylene chloride's equal.

In general the process uses water as the solvent, supersaturated with soluble solids from green coffee beans, except caffeine. The idea is that when the warm solvent is circulated through the coffee, it will extract only caffeine, which in turn is removed from the circulating fluid with activated carbon. It's a thesis that in practice has not produced great cups of decaf.

The old standby water decaffeination company, Swiss Water (the only attempt to brand a process), of Vancouver, Canada, is doing all the advertising while others are improving their process. We prefer the cup quality of other companies, and I deplore the marketing tactics of Swiss Water.

In the late '80s, when I first wrote to the previous owners, I decried their deliberately misleading advertising. Here they go again. They are falling back into advertising tactics that assume the ignorance of the audience. Their attempt to associate the chemical names of the other processes with some chemo-hysteria is unethical.

To summarize, of the four major processes for decaf, only methylene chloride and water are widely used in specialty coffee (here, by the way, Wikipedia on decaffeination is less strong than it is on caffeine). Methylene chloride can produce the best cup results when good coffee and careful processing are used. Good coffee and careful processing also produce the best results from dihydro-oxide, but the best is still second in cup quality to MC.


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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, 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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