Date: July 2010

Column/Title: Pity the Poor Decaf Drinker: Signature Decaf Blends

Author: Kenneth Davids; Reviews by Kenneth Davids and Ted Stachura

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I am a positive thinker when it comes to coffee, but this month's sampling of fifty decaffeinated blends from thirty of North America's finest specialty roasters tested my optimism. Almost every month our reviews reveal impressive new coffee possibilities powered in part by a fresh generation of specialty coffee roasters and coffee producers. Typically our monthly surveys turn up multiple samples rated 90 or over with some pushing considerably higher. Yet this month, out of fifty samples, only one 90-rated coffee emerged from the pack, and that one stayed right at 90.

Obviously, this is not encouraging news for the decaf drinker. True, we have reported on some outstanding decaffeinated espresso blends in recent years (see Better Than You Think: Decaffeinated Espressos, March 2007), but this month's results suggest that the North American specialty industry continues to underperform when it comes to producing decaffeinated coffees intended for non-espresso brewing methods like drip and French press.

But first the good news. Despite my opening kvetch, we sampled some attractive coffees this month. The successes were sweet-toned and balanced, with dominating nut notes that often softened toward chocolate. The 90-rated Cafe Valverde Decaf South America Blend particularly impressed with its quiet balance, syrupy mouthfeel and depth of sensation that for us offset a mild woody simplification in the finish. A similar backgrounded woody flatness was the only thing that prevented several fine runner-up coffees from breaking from the 89 range to 90 or higher. Especially interesting were two differently roasted versions of the same decaffeinated Colombia, one version from Klatch Coffee and the other from Equator Estate Coffees. In this case the green coffee was decaffeinated using ethyl acetate, a sweet, sugar-derived solvent. The residual sweetness of the ethyl acetate appeared to reinforce the inherently rich chocolate-and-fruit tendency of the Colombia, netting a rather lush, fruit-toned profile considerably different from the crisper, more nut-toned profiles displayed by coffees decaffeinated either by the water-only method or by methods using the synthetic solvent methylene chloride.

But despite these successes, there were no exciting surprises or ringing coffee assertions among the fifty samples we tested. They trouped their way onto the cupping table with a rather enervating predictability. Regardless of roasting company or decaffeination method one could almost be assured of the following:

Muted acidity. (True, some coffee drinkers don't like the sweet tartness of a good acidy coffee, but many do.)

Muted high notes and simplified aromatics. As I suggested earlier, we encountered plenty of nut character and some pleasing chocolate, molasses and aromatic wood notes. Nevertheless, high notes (flowers in particular) and the various complex fruit-related nuances that stretch the sensory range of the best non-decaffeinated coffees turned up only occasionally.

Lurking somewhere in the sensory profiles of almost all of these samples was the "decaf taste": a flat, sometimes sourish woody nut sensation. In some samples this sensation dominated. In others it lurked in the background, only becoming explicit as the cup cooled. As I suggested earlier, several potentially 90-plus coffees slid to 89 or 88 as they cooled and suggestions of this distraction surfaced, particularly in the finish.

What appears to be going wrong - or at least only half-right - with these North American decafs? There are, of course, three possibilities: the green coffee, the decaffeination, and the roasting. Decaffeinated coffees, with their low percentage of bound moisture and brown color, are notoriously difficult to roast. Nevertheless, we found few indications of roast faults in this month's samples. As a group they appeared to be roasted with impressive tact.

As Coffee Review readers doubtless know, caffeine itself is virtually tasteless. Nevertheless, removing it from the green beans without doing damage to the literally hundreds of other substances that contribute to the sensory character of roasted coffee is very, very difficult. Practically speaking, it is impossible. The woody taste of the bean itself appears to inevitably move forward as the delicate and complex substances that contribute to aroma and flavor are muted or lost during caffeine removal.

And so, regrettably, the sheer fact that this month's coffees were subjected to decaffeination appears to be the main reason they displayed so little sensory excitement. (Again, I need to remind readers that the muting of acidity and aromatics that takes place during decaffeination is considerably less problematic in coffees intended for espresso brewing. As we pointed out in our 2007 review of decaffeinated espresso blends: "The espresso system, with its rapid extraction of strong, concentrated coffee, tends to intensify any extreme characteristic of a green coffee, particularly high acidity.... Decaffeination, which tends to mute the overall characteristics of a green coffee, can even on occasion function as an advantage in espresso blending, rounding the potential sharp edges of a green coffee while leaving behind enough of its individuality to usefully add an enriching voice to a blend.")

Drip or French-press brewing, however, permits aromatic complexity and acidy brightness to assert themselves without exaggeration and with balance and subtlety. Consequently, any dampening or simplifying of the positive sensory range of a coffee reveals itself clearly when that coffee is cupped or brewed as drip or French-press.

The one area where I think roasters and their green dealers could improve is in selecting green coffees for decaffeination. Although we asked for signature blends for this month?s article, and although most of the samples we received were labeled blends, I suspect that many were not blends at all, but rather single-origin coffees, quite a few probably from Mexico. Roasters often call their decaffeinated coffees "blends" simply to permit maximum flexibility in sourcing the coffees that go into the bag. At a given moment the "blend" may in fact be the least offensive, best-tasting option that can be had at a good price. Even with genuine blends the blending may be done by importers or green coffee dealers rather than by the roaster.

In other words, the kind of curiosity and innovation that the top tier of the specialty industry has lavished on sourcing exceptional single-origin coffees and developing sophisticated espresso blends has largely passed decaffeinated coffee by. Decaffeination companies doubtless do their best to optimize their decaffeination processes, but in my view what we need are roasters and green dealers who bring the same passion to pairing fine green coffees with optimum decaffeination methods as they have to sourcing prize-winning green coffees in the first place and developing exceptional espresso blends.

Hints of such a development did surface during our research for this article. A boutique green dealer specializing in decaffeinated coffee has set up business, for example. But most encouraging for me was reading a blog from David Pohl of Equator Estate Coffees expressing excitement at first coming across the ethyl-acetate-decaffeinated Colombia Las Serranias that was eventually roasted and retailed by both Equator and Klatch Coffee (and reviewed here at 89). This coffee certainly was not flawless, but it was a very interesting coffee displaying considerable character, and above all it suggested that the now familiar quest among small roasting companies for small lots of exceptional coffee is finally beginning to be extended to the challenging world of decaffeinated beans.

Perhaps some leading importer or innovative roasting company needs to raise the bar for the specialty industry by putting more focus on decaffeinated coffees and in the process making some waves and some money with them. Unfortunately, everything hinges on the money-making side of the equation, and that aspiration is a tough one, given the fact that decaffeinated coffees make up such a small part of most roasting companies' business (rule of thumb: 10%) and consumers who drink them may be so beaten down that they have stopped trying to find anything more distinctive or exciting than the coffee they are already drinking. Nevertheless, judging by an occasional email at Coffee Review, there are decaf drinkers who feel the pain and are not shy about expressing it.

Given that a minimum lot of coffee decaffeinated by most plants is around sixty-five bags, it would be inspiring to see some of the new wave of specialty roasters band together to buy the minimum lot size of two or three powerfully expressive green coffees, have them decaffeinated, and perhaps give downtrodden decaf drinkers (not to mention cupped-out coffee reviewers) a little caffeine-free thrill.

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