By Catherine Franks
Coffee and caffeine are almost inextricably linked in our consciousness. So much of the language of coffee is tied to the idea of fuel and also addiction. As your independent coffee dealers, we certainly love playing around with those ideas and we joke about fuelling your adventures. The earliest incarnation of our coffee subscription was actually called a coffee prescription.
But caffeine is indeed a drug and there may be good and understandable reasons why some of us will occasionally or perpetually need to switch to a decaffeinated version of of favourite beverage.
This reminds us of the other equally important reason why we drink coffee - we love it for both its flavour and the ritual of preparing it! For this reason, and for reasons of our health, its is maybe important to find out a little bit more about the ins and outs of coffee decaffeination.
Before we can talk about the decaf however, we need to talk about the caf.
Caffeine in fact could arguably be termed a dirty word. It is definitely addictive and any regular coffee drinker who has missed their daily fix can tell you that caffeine withdrawal is an absolute nightmare. It has happened to me on numerous occasions now and honestly is not a process I want to undergo again so I have come to terms with the fact that as part of my job I consume a pretty decent amount of caffeine and I need to keep those levels topped up.
So what does coffee do to your brain? Read this article to find out.
There are certainly different tolerances for caffeine and also these do vary over time. I can remember a number of years when I was pregnant and my kids were small that I really couldn’t handle caffeine at all and my intake was limited to one cup of tea and decaf coffee only. Anything more and I felt nauseous and didn’t sleep a wink. Gradually over the years I readjusted and can now drink quite a lot of coffee without these effects. But who knows when that might change again? We potentially will all have times in our lives we need to cut down or cut out the caffeine.
People do regularly tout health benefits of drinking coffee - either for the compounds in the coffee itself or for the caffeine. Caffeine is also regularly used as performance enhancer in sport. Coffee’s relationships with health is a big subject which I will not go into detail here but you could check out this interesting podcast by Caffeine Magazine: Is Coffee Killing Us? to dip your toe into the subject.
Caffeine can also be considered a dirty word in its relationship with productivity. As a tool of capitalism it can fuel industriousness, making us more efficient, helping us get things done faster - all things that make us good little workers. Coffee has a historical relationship with subversion however - it is worth remembering that it was the coffee houses rather than the pubs which were the centres for anti-establishment activity and organising. We at Steampunk prefer to think of caffeine’s role in sharpening the mind, fuelling passion, creativity and activism and bringing people together up and down the supply chain as well as in cafes rather than as just a tool to improve work rate.
Caffeine levels vary according to brew method so even without going for decaf, you can moderate your caffeine intake by changing how you prepare your coffee.
The roast level of your beans also affects the caffeine level. Although the common belief is that dark roasted oily beans are the highest in caffeine because they taste strongest, the reverse has been touted by specialty coffee aficionados for years with lighter roasts being claimed to contain the most caffeine. So which is it? It seems that by weight they are roughly similar but as darker roasted beans are lighter (as more water has been evaporated) if coffee is measured by scoop (volume) a lighter roast will have higher caffeine levels as it is denser. You can find out more HERE.
So how does a coffee get decaffeinated? There are numerous methods for doing this and it is worth finding out how your coffee was decaffeinated before you drink it. If the coffee you are drinking does not specifically name a method you can assume that it was processed using a traditional chemical method.
The methods by which coffee is decaffeinated are often shrouded in mystery. It can be really hard to find out exactly how the caffeine has been removed. Take a look at this interesting short video by Food Unwrapped to learn a bit more about the chemical process. For obvious reasons, many of us working with specialty coffee avoid this process and roast beans which are ‘naturally’ decaffeinated using either the Swiss Water, CO2 or Sugarcane process. Most commodity decafs and what you will find in the supermarket, certainly anything instant, will have been processed using the chemical methods.
The Sugarcane Process
The decaf we are currently roasting at Steampunk is a Colombian coffee which is decaffeinated using what is known as the Sugarcane Process. The processing itself involves soaking the green coffee beans in a series of baths of sugar cane ethyl acetate (EA).This process starts by fermenting a molasses derived from sugar cane to create ethanol. This alcohol is then mixed with acetic acid, to create the compound ethyl acetate. In Colombia sugar cane is readily available so it makes great economic sense to use this plentiful resource. EA is also found in wine, beer, fruit, vegetables, and other foods and beverages.
The green coffee beans are first gently steamed to elevate the moisture content and swell the bean in order to facilitate the extraction of caffeine. Then the bean is soaked in the EA solution which dissolves the caffeine. The beans are then cleaned with water, followed by steam, to clean the inner most portions of the bean. Finally, the beans are dried until reaching the moisture similar to which they had prior to the process.
This method avoids excessive heat or pressure, which can radically disrupt a green bean's cellular structure. One downside of this process, however is that since the pores of the bean are opened up through steaming, the coffee does tend to age more quickly (both as roasted and green). You may even notice occasional ‘sweat' on the roasted bean which you will not see on our other coffees at the level at which we roast them. This is more common on darker roasted coffees but due to the processing it affects our decaf.
Check out this interesting video to see more on the sugarcane process and for some great tips on how to tweak your brewing to address the different porosity and get the best out of the decaffeinated beans.
Death before decaf vs decaf before death
I would urge you to look past the macho Death Before Decaf culture in the coffee world and consider a bit more fully the option of an occasional decaf coffee. It can be fun to explore what has for so long been coffee's second class citizen. Even if you don’t have to cut down on your caffeine maybe trying a well roasted and carefully decaffeinated specialty coffee will change your mind about the possibility.
If you do have to stick to only decaf for health reasons, you can be confident that you do not need to sacrifice taste and can still experience a delicious coffee whenever you like. Just be selective about which decaf you choose and spend a bit of time tweaking your recipes to take into account the different way your decaffeinated bean will react to brewing.