Decaf Doesn’t Have to Suck
Author | Jeff Chean Date | August 02, 2017
But in many cases, it does. And because it does, decaf and its drinkers have been looked down upon, maligned, and generally ignored by many in the Specialty side of the industry. But the poor taste of many decaf coffees is not necessarily a result of the decaf process. Interestingly, the decaf process seems to soften the bad notes of faulty coffee. What? Yeah, the exact opposite of what one would expect. Some in the industry call it “sending the beans to the spa,” because the coffee comes out of the decaf process tasting better than when it went in. Something in the process diminishes the bad flavor that relegated them to something less than Specialty Grade.
I experienced this firsthand while visiting DESCAMEX, famous for their Mountain Water Decaf Process, in Vera Cruz, Mexico. I did a “before and after” cupping. One coffee on the table was a Costa that went from tasting like the burlap bag it shipped in (“baggy” in Cupper parlance) before being decaffeinated to palatable afterwards. For the record, “palatable” does not equal “great” — it just means you can drink it without grimacing and/or spitting it out. So, how decaf evolved becomes pretty clear with this tidbit: The decaf process adds a lot of cost to the green coffee; the decaf process reduces the impact of flavor faults; therefore, use cheaper/lower grade coffees to decaffeinate. It doesn’t take a lot to imagine that conversation happening in some boardroom somewhere back in the day.
Grade 5 Sumatra: the sort of coffee you wouldn’t want your worst enemy to drink.
So, the old truism GIGO (Garbage In, Garbage Out) comes into play. Use lousy inputs and it’s not reasonable to expect a quality result. Simple, right? This maxim holds true everywhere, as I have explained to my kids in the context of doing homework: “You played Minecraft all weekend, instead of studying. Why are you surprised by the C on your math test?”
While the decaf process reduces bad flavors, it doesn’t eliminate them entirely. It’s no surprise, then, that decaf coffee (and, by extension, its drinkers) have developed a bad rap. GIGO proved true all over again.
“Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the Game”
So, here comes some hard truth: We’re addicts. We’re addicted to caffeine, and coffee is a very tasty transport/carrier for our drug of choice. So are colas, energy drinks, and chocolate. But what if your body can’t tolerate caffeine? As you get older (or so I am told), your body has less tolerance for it. I find now, even at my tender age, that if I have something with caffeine too late in the day, I stare at the ceiling, pondering “Life, The Universe, and Everything” into the wee hours of the morning.
So, why all the disdain for the decaf drinker? Some cafés refuse to even sell decaf coffee. “Decaf isn’t real coffee” is a common thing to hear. Thinking about all this recently, as I finished evaluating the arrival sample of our new Org Decaf Papua New Guinea, I was confused about why decaf drinkers are treated as second-class coffee citizens. After all, I just gave a great score to this decaf PNG because it was good . . . not good for a decaf, just good for a coffee. Why would anyone be looked down upon for drinking this? Putting aside, for now, the question about why anyone would be looked down upon by anyone else for exercising their free will and following the dictates of their preferences, I thought that, if anything, decaf drinkers should be regarded as die-hard coffee purists. That’s right, purist. Why? The decaf drinker isn’t drinking coffee for the caffeine buzz (consciously or unconsciously) but, instead, solely because they enjoy the flavor of coffee. Can’t get any purer than that.
AMUCC Grower, Bertha Rosas Figueroa, hand sorting her parchment coffee before bagging and sending to the Caficauca.
I first noticed this disparity about 15 years ago, when a pallet of decaf green coffee I had bought turned out to be from the same estate as the non-decaf Brazil we were buying at that time. Though it came from the same estate, upon visual inspection, I could see it was a slightly lower grade. Bang! Why aren’t better coffees sent to be decaffeinated? Why are we waiting for others to send good coffees for decaffeination instead of just doing it ourselves? Well, “why not” at the time actually turned out to be because we weren’t buying enough decaf to meet the minimum load for what is called “tolling.” Tolling is the process in which the roaster (or broker, importer, or other company) buys their own green coffee and sends it to a facility to be decaffeinated. There aren’t many places that decaffeinate coffee and, if you’re certified organic like we are, there are even fewer choices. Essentially, our choices are DESCAMEX in Mexico and Swiss Water in Vancouver, Canada — both good companies that achieve the same ends through slightly different methods. I wasn’t satisfied with that answer, so I began asking importers who we worked with to split with us a decaf toll of a coffee we wanted. Sometimes we could make it work, other times we couldn’t. When we could, the results have always been spectacular.
We Do Decaf Different
Things have changed since then, and so has Groundwork. Namely, the minimums for tolling decaf have gone down, and we sell a lot more decaf. What hasn’t changed is our dedication to quality. We take the same approach to sourcing coffee to decaffeinate as we do with all of our coffees. In fact, finding a great coffee also makes it a great candidate for buying more and decaffeinating it!
With this in mind, I flew to Peru . . . twice . . . within three weeks . . . to visit Monte Verde (and other places) and meet with their management and growers.
Decaf at origin is sort of a novel thing. While it exists, it just isn’t very common and people don’t understand why you would take the caffeine out of coffee. I explained most of what I wrote above, and because their coffee was so good, I had chosen to decaffeinate some of it. They were happy to hear that! I told them our customers were happy, too, which is why I was visiting. I wanted to meet them, hear their stories, and buy more coffee.
I will go more into my visit with the Monte Verde, Valle Verde, and Flor de Café groups in another post, but I wanted to share some of the underpinning philosophy of our decaf program and to pass along this message to decaf drinkers: We care.