The fact that I asked over fifteen roasters to send me decaffeinated coffees for review and only a handful actually did is one indication of how little interest roastmasters and coffee managers take in decaffeinated coffees. But it seems to me that the drinker of decaffeinated coffee deserves an even better cup than those of us who can fall back on raw stimulation to justify our coffee investment. For the drinker of decaf, sensory pleasure is the only payoff.
So how much sensory payoff does the average decaffeinated specialty coffee deliver?
Judging from the success of the eleven coffees reviewed here, quite a bit. But judging from the eight I did not review, not very much. The decaffeinated coffees that found their way to the table split sharply between the impressive and the lackluster to flat out bad.
The Frogs of the Roasting Room
The reason for this unusually sharp polarization may be the difficulty decaffeinated coffees present in roasting. Arriving from the warehouse already brown and prone to develop in unpredictable ways during the roast, decaffeinated coffees are prime candidates for careless roasting. They are to roast quality what frogs are to the environment -- mess up and they are the first to show the consequences.
The Good News
So much for the bad news. The good news is quite good.
The best of these coffees (I filled out my twenty review candidates via a supplementary run through the local shopping mall) were impressive in a variety of styles and ways. There were successes representing most of the classic coffee origins, and in roast styles ranging from the extremely light to the relatively dark.
In general, single origins with distinctive or powerful profiles -- Sumatra, Ethiopia, Colombia -- fared better than blends, although there were exceptions, particularly the amazing light-roasted blend from Belgium's Koffie Kàn.
I suspect that distinctive profiles stand up better to the intrusions of the decaffeination process than the softer, less distinctive origins that often form the basis of blends. I've noticed that distinctive coffees that frequently carry ambiguous flavor baggage with them -- fruity but slightly composty Harrars or big-bodied but musty Sumatras -- actually improve with decaffeination, which seems to strip off some of the processing-related taints along with the outer waxy layer of the bean.
Finally, a Fair-Trade/organic and an organic decaf, each a one-of-a-kind among the twenty coffees I cupped, fared very well. Based on this tiny sampling, coffee lovers whose fastidiousness about consuming caffeine extends to concerns about agrochemical residues and/or grower welfare don't appear to be sacrificing much in the cup.
Most of the coffees I cupped were decaffeinated by the least intrusive but most sinister-sounding of the various decaffeination methods, the direct solvent (aka conventional or European) process. A few were decaffeinated by the solvent-free Swiss Water method.
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, but on the basis of the coffees I cupped for this article, I found little distinction to be made between the Swiss Water and the solvent methods in terms of cup quality and character.
Perhaps those technicians involved in refining both methods have finally succeeded in getting their procedures to stay out of the way of the coffee on its way from farm to cup. If so, science may have finally called the bluff of those who fear they may need to give up all the fun with the caffeine.