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.