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Coffee – How It Becomes Decaf


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Have you ever wondered how coffee becomes decaffeinated? In a nutshell, coffee becomes decaffeinated through a specific process which removes much of the caffeine from both the beans and tea leaves. Coffee beans are soaked in water in order to soften and dilute the caffeine. Then, the water mixture, which contains the caffeine and much of the coffee flavor, is treated with a specific chemical agent called ethyl acetate. This mixture is then heated to remove the chemical solvent. Lastly, the water mixture is returned to the coffee beans so they can absorb as much natural flavor as possible. Thus, the flavors in the water mixture without the caffeine are absorbed and returned to the coffee beans and then are dried.

Coffee is considered decaffeinated only when 97% of the caffeine has been removed. An eight ounce cup of decaffeinated coffee contains less than 5 milligrams of caffeine. An eight ounce cup of caffeinated coffee contains an average of 110 milligrams of caffeine. Over the years, many methods have been developed to remove caffeine from coffee beans and tea leaves. As easy as this sounds, the most difficult part of the decaffeination process is not just removing the caffeine but maintaining the natural and robust flavor of the coffee bean. This is the main reason filtered water is not used in this process of decaffeination. Pure water removes much of the natural taste and flavor of the coffee bean.

There are two main decaffeination processes; direct and indirect decaffeination. Direct decaffeination means the additives in the water mixture come into direct contact with all the coffee beans. One method of direct decaffeination involves the use of carbon dioxide. The coffee beans are saturated in compressed carbon dioxide removing most, if not all, the caffeine without interfering with the natural flavors. The compressed carbon dioxide containing the caffeine is heated to evaporate and remove the caffeine.

The beans are then returned to room temperature. Indirect decaffeination simply means the additive in the water mixture, ethyl acetate, does not come into contact with the beans but only interacts with the water. This indirect method of decaffeination is also known as “natural decaffeination”. Although this process can be considered “naturally” decaffeinated, manufacturers are urged to label the specific chemical agents used in their decaffeination process. Ethyl Acetate is a natural solvent, however, during the 1970s chemical solvents called trichloroethylene and methylene chloride were used by many manufacturers but were found to contain carcinogenic properties and were banned by the FDA.

Another indirect decaffeination process involves the use of charcoal and carbon. The coffee beans are soaked in water. After several hours, the water mixture is filtered through charcoal and carbon and the caffeine is extracted. With this method, the flavors of the coffee beans are untouched in the water mixture and the beans are able to absorb the flavors back. Because this method was established by a Swiss company, it is known as the “Swiss Water Process”.

As a final note, always check with the manufacturer to make sure their methods of decaffeination are safe and natural. Simply ask what solvents or chemical agents they use to decaffeinate the coffee.

Michael Russell
Your Independent guide to Coffee

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  • Posted On January 5, 2007
  • Published articles 283513

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