Taking the buzz out of coffee (intentionally)
Going deep on the wonderful world of decaf
Nau mai, hoki mai. Welcome back to The Magic Roast. If you love what you read, support The Magic Roast by buying me a coffee!
It’s 5pm on a very warm evening in the heart of the Bay of Plenty. I’m blasting the air conditioning as I weave my way through the famous Tauranga traffic. Keeping me company is RNZ - Chris Shultz is explaining to MediaWatch why music journalism is broken. I’m tired, but I’m excited for the destination.
After what felt longer than it should have been, I find myself deep in a Tauranga industrial area. I call it Tauranga, but the locals call it The Mount - I’m not quite a local, yet.
I park the wheels opposite Ullrich Aluminum and for a brief moment contemplate buying a new ladder. But in the words of Matt Berry, I couldn’t be sidetracked with cheap sex potions, and I wonder over to Little Drum Coffee.
We’re all here to drink decaf coffee - a much maligned but increasingly improving part of the coffee world.
As I have previously argued, decaf drinkers are hands down the true connoisseurs of the coffee world. Read more:
The task is a simple one
The task is, indeed, a simple one - try six decaf coffees. On top of that, we’re trying to figure out:
how the coffee is processed (natural, washed, mixed)
where the coffee is from (Africa, Central America, Asia)
if the coffee is a single origin or a blend of coffees
if the coffee was grown lower or above 1,500 meters about sea level.
It sounds a bit intense. A little bit intimidating.
We were in the safe hands of the experts from Little Drum Coffee and green coffee importers, John Burton Ltd.
Any apprehension quickly melted, and with spoon in hand, it was time to smash some coffee.
Before we get too far into that, it’s probably worth asking the question - what even is decaf?
Water, caffeine and high-school chemistry
Coffee beans have caffeine in them. It’s a naturally occurring chemical that is designed, in part, to stop insects from eating the fruit.
Someone realized that we, humans, are better than insects. They found that caffeine doesn’t stop us from consuming the fruit- and coffee as a beverage was born.
While people seemed to enjoy the taste, some people didn’t love the affects. You know, the impending sense of doom, the jitters and heart palpitations. People looked for a way to get rid of caffeine.
One way of getting rid of it, is by using a solvent.
What is a solvent?
Do you remember high-school chemistry? Or were you making little flip-book doodles in the corner of your text book?
A solvent is simply something that can dissolve a solute, leaving a solution.
You would have done this simple reaction in class: acid+metal =hydrogen gas + metal salt. Remember? Hydrochloric acid + zinc = zinc chloride and bang bang boom gas.
In this example, hydrochloric acid is the solvent (does the dissolving), and zinc is the solute (gets dissolved).
How does this apply to coffee?
We apply this science every time we make a coffee. Water + roasted coffee grounds = a brown cup of extracted happy.
If you do that to coffee beans before they are roasted, you can use the solvent to extract the caffeine. This leaves behind decaffeinated coffee beans.
Historically, the solvent for this process was some time of alcohol or even sugar cane. However this often left some sort of residue or taste on the bean.
The specialty coffee world needed something different. So a group of smart people came up with a chemical-free process that left the flavor and quality of the bean intact.
That’s the Swiss Water process. It uses water as the solvent to remove the caffeine from the coffee. It leaves it 99.9% caffeine free.
Now, back to the tasting.
But decaf tastes terrible…
Yeah, they used to. The old way of removing the caffeine meant that lower quality beans were usually chosen. And then they were roasted pretty dark to mask the flavours the process left.
Not any more.
The Swiss Water process means that producers are more inclined to choose high-quality, great tasting coffee to be decaffeinated. This results in more highly-skilled, quality conscious roasters to purchase them for their customers. In turn, this goes on to feed demand, encouraging more producers to decaf more coffee.
A beautiful circle.
These coffees were not terrible - they were excellent
John Burton chose six different decafs to try. These were high quality coffees, where, with a coaching, you were able to pick out the attributes we were asked to look for.
Side bar - how to pick out the different attributes of the coffee
To the uninitiated, trying to pick out the difference between an African and American coffee could be daunting. But we were given these handy hints to help us through that process. These hints can also help you spot the difference in the coffee you’re drinking.
Processing: Natural vs washed
Natural coffees are dried in the full cherry prior to de-pulping (getting the cherry off the bean). They tend to have more fruit, berry and fermented flavors, because the bean has more time to interact with the natural sugars from the cherry.
Washed coffees are dried without the cherry. They tend to have ‘vibrant’ notes and are prized for their clarity.
Origin: Africa vs America: The main difference between coffee beans from Africa and South America is their flavour profile. African coffee beans have citrus, floral and fruity notes, whereas their South American counterparts tend to have nutty, chocolate and caramel tones.
High - above 1,500 meters above sea level: The high altitudes tend to mean cooler temperatures. Cooler temperatures slow the growth cycle allowing the bean to go through a longer maturation process. These creates a fuller, richer and more pronounced flavour, often fruity or floral. Colombian, Ethiopian and Kenyan coffees tend to be grown at this altitude.
Medium to low altitudes: coffees ripen a lot faster, but tend to have higher yields. That impacts the time the coffee has to mature, and results in coffee that isn’t as complex (though, still tasting great). Brazilian coffees are great examples of this.
In decafs of old, being able to pick these different characteristics up would have been impossible. But the new era of these coffees mean that with some training, you can pick these out. They’ve come a long way.
Decaf - for the win
This taster series was a winner, as were the decafs.
The NZSCA run these sessions from time-to-time and are worth getting to. They’re always a good time and you’ll come away drinking some great coffee and yarning with some cool people. They’re for home coffee enthusiasts and experts alike. Keep an eye on their website for upcoming events.
Where to get some great decaf
Here are some of my favourite decaf coffees:
Do you have a favourite decaf? Tell me in the comments.