Win Some, Lose Some: Decaffeinated Coffees
I think it's safe to say coffee professionals and their fellow fanatics are not fond of decaffeinated coffees. Yes, sneers or shoulder-slumping resignation are common around the cupping table when the decafs show up.
Nevertheless, some people love coffee but can't handle caffeine, at least not at all hours and times. Look at it this way: This proves that there is more to coffee than caffeine. Many other substances stimulate the nervous system, but it would seem that the sensory properties of coffee, the properties celebrated at Coffee Review and hopefully preserved in decaf, are what took coffee from just another beverage with a buzz to the world's preferred hot beverage.
In a way, the creative stakes are higher for decaffeinated coffee: After all, we are drinking it only for the taste, and perhaps ritual satisfactions related to taste. Quality and character ought to be even more important when there is no caffeine-craving to satisfy.
Satisfaction at the Top
So how much quality and character were delivered by this month's twenty-six decaffeinated coffees chosen pretty much at random from seventeen American specialty roasters?
At the top end, quite a bit. The best-rated five coffees, all in the 88 to 91 range, were interesting and diverse. They ranged from the classic, complete Colombia from Don Francisco's through the less coherent but aromatically exciting Mexico from Flying Goat Coffee to the darker roasted offerings from CC's and Counter Culture Coffee, the former pungent and complex and the latter roundly and resonantly roasty. And, although its dense bluntness prevented a higher rating, the 85-rated aged Indonesia from Allegro coffee offers an opportunity for decaf drinkers to enjoy an excellent example of an unusual coffee type.
On the other hand, taken as a group, these twenty-six coffees displayed a good deal of inconsistency. In two cases we ordered two different decaffeinated coffees from the same roasting company and found one rating in the 87 to 90 range and the other languishing in the low 80s. Typically we don't find such extreme differences in quality from the same company when we source coffees that have not been subject to decaffeination. And one normally dependable large roasting company struck out entirely, with two thoroughly dispirited, listless offerings at 79 and 81.
But the message seems to be that if decaf drinkers look carefully, they will find quality.
Diversity and Decafs
Diversity is another issue. We turned up an impressive variety of decaffeinated coffees from Latin America, some Pacific and African origins, including the aged Indonesia, a good range of roast styles, and organic and Fair-Trade options. However, the Ethiopias we ordered did not impress and no other East Africa origin showed up in our brief survey, suggesting that a decaf drinker interested in a region that produces many of the world's most distinctive coffees currently does not have much to choose from.
In fact, the old standby, Colombia, gave by far the best showing in terms of quality, probably reflecting the fact that far more Colombia coffees are decaffeinated than any other origin, doubtless upping the odds of a successful sensory voyage through the ravages of caffeine-removal.
Coffee, of course, is decaffeinated after fruit removal and drying but before roasting, in other words, as green beans. There still are only three basic methods of caffeine-removal in use: Those processes that use a presumably benign solvent to remove the caffeine (the so-called conventional method, usually unnamed on the package), the water-only method (soaking the beans in hot water and removing the caffeine from the water with charcoal filters, then resoaking the beans in the essence-saturated water), and methods using a liquefied form of carbon dioxide as solvent.
Those readers interested in decaffeination processes and their associated health and environmental issues may want to consult the sidebar article Fun without the Buzz: Decaffeination Processes and Issues.
Decaffeination Method and Quality
Interestingly, samples decaffeinated by each of the three methods - solvent, carbon dioxide, and water-only - appear in this month's top-rated five coffees, which suggests that factors other than method are the main determinants of sensory success in decaffeinated coffee. Quality of the green coffee before decaffeination, for example, or care in roasting, or freshness and integrity of packaging. Furthermore, average scores for coffees decaffeinated by water-only processes versus those decaffeinated using solvents came out about the same: 82.6 for water-only, 83 for solvent methods. We had only one coffee decaffeinated by a procedure using carbon dioxide, the Counter-Culture Peru, which scored an 88. A fine coffee, but one sample is hardly enough to base a case for the superiority of this method.