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
(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.
(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.