Tasting Report: Decaffeinated Coffees

Decafs 2015: The Splendid, The Strange, The Listless

Some observations about decaffeinated coffees prompted by this month’s modest sampling of decafs from twelve American specialty roasters.

Observation one: Most decaffeinated coffees continue to be bad, in some cases close to foul. Not only are the sensory profiles flattened and simplified by the brutality of the decaffeination process, but this process often adds mysterious flavor notes to the cup for which the ordinary coffee lexicon has no words. Some of the words we came up with this month for decaf-processing taints: alfalfa in a hot barn, ripe mulch, rotten wood, sour nut, faintly chocolaty algae. In some cases these disturbing flavor notes seem compounded by careless roasting – decaffeinated coffees are notoriously difficult to roast.

Observation two: On the other hand, great coffees clearly can survive and transcend the rigors of decaffeination. Four decafs from this month’s cupping attracted ratings ranging from 89 to an impressive 93; all four are reviewed here. This month’s top-rated Old Soul Decaf Ethiopia Sidamo (93) delivered an engaging version of the intricacy and exuberance of a fine Ethiopia dried-in-the-fruit or “natural” coffee, its beauty only slightly muted by the rigors of decaffeination. Similarly, the PT’s Mexico Decaf (92) was a lovely, lyric, gently bright cup of the style we associate with the best coffees of Mexico.

We can offer no conclusive reasons why these two coffees so convincingly beat the decaffeination odds, except to report that out of this month’s tiny sampling of thirteen American specialty decafs, all of the best samples were decaffeinated by the water-only method at the Descamex plant in Mexico, were branded as either “Mountain Water Decaf” or “Royal Select Water Decaf,” and perhaps most importantly, were freshly decaffeinated and just delivered to the roasters. By comparison, two “Swiss Water Processed” samples from the famous Vancouver, Canada plant struck us as faded and decaf-tainted, either because of the impact of the decaffeination or perhaps because the decaffeinated green beans had languished too long in the warehouse. Four additional tested samples presumably were decaffeinated using one of the old-fashioned, cheaper (though never publicized) processes that use solvents to remove the caffeine. These samples also were unimpressive, although one – the Starbucks Decaf Pike Place Roast – produced a decent if rather unorthodox cup that we review here at 84.

Don’t Ask Us for Decafs

Observation three: It appears that most high-end specialty roasters know that their decaffeinated coffees are not impressive. We can make this assumption because we received only seven unsolicited samples for this article instead of the thirty or more we usually receive when we test regular, non-decaffeinated coffees.

To fill out this month’s testing we purchased six additional decaffeinated coffees from stores close to our lab. These included three samples from very large, corporate specialty companies, all most likely decaffeinated by methods using solvents. Two of these large-specialty-roaster samples were listless and mildly decaf-tainted; the third was the odd though passable Starbucks Decaf Pike Place Roast reviewed here at 84. Two additional water-decaffeinated samples purchased from small, presumably hip roasters did not impress. The sixth of our purchased samples came from a roaster that hasn’t figured out yet whether it is going to be massive and corporate or stay somewhat neighborly and cool; this sample (decaffeinated by an unnamed water-only process) disappointed as well.

Switch-Hitting Espressos

Observation four: Decaffeinated coffees frequently are espresso blends that roasting companies pitch as “all around” blends that will satisfy consumers regardless of whether they are prepared as espresso or brewed coffee. Generally we found that this hybrid strategy does not work in favor of the brewed-coffee drinker. Only one of this month’s four successful samples, the 89-rated Olympia Asterisk Decaf, was plugged by the roaster as a switch-hitting espresso/brewed coffee.

Observation five: All of the preceding adds up to a picture of a specialty industry that continues to avoid taking decaffeinated coffee seriously. If two decaffeinated coffees out of the thirteen we tested for this month’s article glowed with clean, classic grace and elegance, I don’t see why we can’t have many more doing the same. I suspect decaf drinkers are so beaten down by mediocrity that they don’t even complain when they buy a half-pound of coffee that tastes like “faintly chocolaty algae,” to quote one of our tasting notes.

Afterword: Decaffeinated Futility through the Decades

Some quotes from previous Coffee Review articles on decaffeinated coffees:

March 2000:

The last time I wrote on decaffeinated coffees I said drinking them was like listening to good music through cheap speakers. The analogy still stands.

July 2002:

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.

March 2008:

Returning to the question of whether decaf drinkers are well-served by the specialty industry, I find the limited number of single-origin options available to decaffeinated coffee drinkers rather discouraging. I hope the reason is owing to honest economic reasons (limited interest in decaffeinated single-origins among consumers) rather than to the rather macho-tinged dismissal of decaffeinated coffees one often runs into among specialty coffee green buyers and roasters.

July 2010:

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. … 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.


Oh well.

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Posted in: Tasting Reports

About the Author:

Kenneth Davids is the co-founder and editor of Coffee Review as well as its primary cupper and writer. Jason Sarley is the co-cupper for most coffees reviewed on Coffee Review. He passed the Coffee Quality Institute’s challenging Q-grading exam and holds a Level One Roaster Certification from Roasters Guild of the Specialty Coffee Association of America.

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