Taking the Fun out of Coffee – Feature

There are many ‘opinions’ that those in the speciality coffee business hold about coffee that are born from some kind of snobbery. Flavoured coffees. Excessively milky coffees. Dark roasted beans. These are partly designed to convey the superiority of the speciality coffee industry, but also very much founded in genuine qualms with distracting the drinker from the coffee itself. In turn, both of these factors are somewhat founded in anger directed at the globalising forces of Starbucks, Caffe Nero etc. Hopefully at some point I’ll find time to rationalise all of these to you, but today I want to pick up one aspect of coffee that draws considerable flack from the connoisseur.

Decaffeinated coffee is produced in several different ways. The most sophisticated of these is the Swiss Water method, which uses water to leech everything from the bean (flavour and caffeine), and then reinvests the flavour into the bean. If this sounds detrimental to flavour, then you’d be spot on. As the Grumpy Mule guide points out, all methods of decaffeination lead to an overly-processed form of coffee. What is generally not a problem is whether decaf is decaffeinated. All coffee contains some caffeine, but after a scare some years ago, legislation now means that the amount of caffeine is truly negligible. The Swiss Water process claims to eliminate 99.9% of bacteria caffeine. However, as Origin Coffee points out, you never know what else has been lost. And in fact flavour in coffee is fickle, and doesn’t take much to disappear.

There’s one more reason why baristas turn their noses up at decaf, and I’ll leave it to you to decide whether it’s a good reason or not. Caffeine is a drug and, like it or not, the overall experience of the coffee is dramatically altered by cutting this out (ever drink alcohol-free beer?). If drinking a cup of coffee is an holistic experience (and it is to many) then cutting out any part of this experience is going to reduce one’s pleasure–take the serotonine-activating effects of chocolate as an analogy.

And yet despite all this you still see the best roasters producing decaf coffees. Why? Because sometimes we need decaf. Myself as much as anyone. If I go out for dinner, I enjoy finishing with a coffee, and yet I know it would keep me up all night, so I order a decaf. Pregnancy is another good reason to avoid the buzzz. It’s worth bearing this in mind, but I don’t think it will stop those in the coffee industry looking down on decaf.


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