How Decaf Coffee Is Made

crazy by Editorial Staff | Updated on July 30th, 2022

Until recently, I was in the dark about the process of making decaffeinated coffee. But that changed today with my latest discovery.

Many methods abound that can remove caffeine – the active ingredient in coffee – thereby making the coffee decaffeinated.

Before we delve into these methods, a little history lesson might help you understand why this is worth your time.

How decaf got started

The first attempt at decaffeinating coffee was made in 1905 by Ludwig Roselius. And while it wasn’t exactly futile, it proved borderline fatal as the scientist used benzene, notorious for its poisonous nature, in separating caffeine from the coffee beans.

How Ludwig came up with the idea of soaking the coffee beans in brine before applying benzene is beyond most nutritionists of that era.

How does the decaf process work?

Back to the methods, it might interest you to know that once the coffee has been decaffeinated, it tastes better. Caffeine, which these processes tend to remove, gives your coffee its bitter and sleep-negating effects.

The core of these caffeine decanting methods revolves around Ludwig’s approach without benzene or brine.

Extremely hot water is used to soak green coffee beans. Typical of chemical reactions, this puts the coffee beans in the right frame of mind for what’s to come.

Caffeine is hydrophilic, so water is the preferred solvent. But since several other compounds usually dissolve in water, specific chemicals, which caffeine alone has an affinity, are introduced.

With the coffee beans engaged in a losing battle with the hot water, a solvent is thrown into the ring to pull out the notorious caffeine. Solvents often considered could range from activated charcoal (the jack of all trades) to methylene chloride or one of those pleasant-smelling esters.

The problem with decaf coffee

The problem with this approach is that the first set of coffee beans immersed in hot water becomes redundant. These are the sacrificial beans that paid the ultimate price for your decaffeination to occur. What do I mean? Well, this beans lose everything to the hot water, saturating it in the process, making it possible for the next batch of beans to come out swelling with flavors. Yes, even coffee beans are known for their unquantifiable love for their kind.

It’s not uncommon to attempt to recoup these lost flavors by re-immersing the sacrificial beans into the dripping hot water. While this is plausible, there’s always the likelihood of such an attempt ending in futility as the anticipated absorption process might not occur.

Solvent-based process

A more contemporary approach that doesn’t require any sacrificial coffee beans entails having the beans brought in contact with steam for about thirty minutes. Afterward, the beans are sprayed with solvents like the pleasant smelling esters, resulting in the removal of caffeine.

For a thoroughly decaffeinated coffee, the solvent is collected through relevant means and reused several times while the coffee beans are steamed in between sessions. This method is generally more economically viable and efficient.

Methylene chloride, mentioned previously, can be deployed for the task, but the esters remain the preferred choice as they appear to absorb mostly caffeine, unlike other solvents.

The swiss water process

The Swiss water process is a prominent decaffeinating method that sees the excellent absorption capacity of the charcoal filter being deployed. While the filter would result in a massive exodus of all manner of flavors from the coffee beans, compressed CO2 limits this to only the caffeine.

swiss water process
image source by reddingroasters

Similar to the first method, this method also witnesses the sacrificial coffee beans as the hot water is soaked with the beans and saturated in the process. What’s unusual is the ease of removal of caffeine by the charcoal filter.

Carbon dioxide process

Usually, the efficiency of this process is topnotch as the sacrificed coffee beans are reintroduced to recoup their lost flavors, excluding caffeine. It might be weird to see compressed CO2 acting as a solvent in this reaction, but when you notice the abysmal level of pressure critical point associated with it, the use of compressed CO2 begins to make sense.

Another method rejigs the Swiss water process and introduces sparkling water. This method works on basically the same principle, albeit with a twist. However, the same reagents are used.

For the twist, this process doesn’t separate caffeine through the absorption tendencies of the charcoal filter. Instead, sparkling water removes the caffeine by rinsing the compressed CO2 within a distinct tank. Here, the solvent is largely compressed carbon dioxide with a mix of water.

Additional information

Decaffeinated coffee isn’t free from caffeine. But the amount of the sleep-negating stimulant is largely negligible.

It might interest you that the United States has a booming coffee industry worth billions of dollars with an annual gross of around $19 billion. Considering Americans are the biggest consumers of coffee worldwide, this might not surprise many.

Caffeine, which is the focal point of the decaffeination process, makes up less than 0.1% of the coffee bean. However, this figure would typically alternate with the coffee variety and the way it’s prepared.

Coffee is a perennial crop with a maturation period of 5 years, but flowering occurs from the 3rd year.

Once matured, a coffee tree could produce as much as 2 pounds throughout the year. While it’s not a seasonal crop, most of the harvest occurs within the October to March timeline.

Coffee owes its luxurious flavor to many components, not just its caffeine content.


Is decaffeinated coffee bad for you?

No verifiable information suggests decaffeinated coffee has any negative effect on your health. The absence of caffeine alone gives you all the goodness of coffee without being excited from caffeine.

Can you decaf your coffee?

Of course, you can. As highlighted in the article, this can be achieved in different ways. Usually, the most popular entails soaking the coffee beans in hot water and introducing solvents like ethyl acetate to remove its caffeine content.

What do they do with the caffeine from decaf coffee?

Due to governing laws, decaf coffee must contain less than 0.1℅ of the bean, but that number is higher than ground decaf coffee. As for the rest, those cardboard totes with thousands of pounds of caffeine go to refiners who eliminate all the impurities, then to beverage companies — like Coca-Cola or Pepsi — incorporating caffeine into their beverages.

Does decaffeinated coffee have caffeine in it?

Those desirous of limiting their caffeine consumption without giving up the delightful flavors inherent in coffee usually opt for decaf coffee. Unfortunately, much of the decaf coffee available for sale has a small amount of caffeine, as the decaffeination process decants up to 96% of caffeine.  Studies show that decaf coffee does contain coffee. On average, an 8-ounce (236-ml) cup of decaf coffee contains up to 7 mg of caffeine, whereas a regular coffee provides 70–140 mg.

Is decaf coffee healthier?

The general belief is that decaf coffee is closer to the ideal for your well-being due to the absence of caffeine, which is notorious for its side effects. Decaf coffee is considered a better alternative as it possesses the healthy benefits of coffee – antioxidants – without its supposedly negative component – caffeine.

Why do people drink decaf coffee?

There are many reasons why decaf coffee’s popularity is soaring, including the absence of bitter and sleep-negating caffeine. Also, people tend to consume decaf coffee to lower the risk of disease conditions that affect the brain and the muscular system, like Alzheimer’s disease. Pregnant women are also switching to decaf due to the verified connection of a miscarriage with caffeine.


Editorial Staff

Editorial Staff at Crazy Coffee Crave is a team of coffee enthusiast & Baristas who enjoy the one thing that we all think about, as soon as we get up in the morning. Trusted by thousands readers worldwide.