Kitchen & Cooking

Here's how decaf coffee is made

Everything you need to know about cutting back on caffeine.

Cups of coffee arranged in a pattern across a light blue background. Credit: Getty Images / ediebloom

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Drinking coffee is a ritual for many, even those who end up needing to reduce their caffeine intake. Whether you have anxiety, insomnia, or just want to drink less caffeine, decaf coffee may be the perfect substitute for your morning routine or to your late-afternoon cup. If you’re into knowing where your food and beverages come from, you've probably asked yourself the following: How does coffee get decaffeinated?

What happens during the decaffeination process

The first ever decaffeination plant was in Germany, and Germany still has the largest decaffeination center in the world. A lot of the decaf we drink gets shipped from its origin to Germany, and then to roasteries in the United States.

Coffee is decaffeinated at the “green” stage, which refers to the state of the coffee bean between having its fruit removed and being roasted. The green coffee beans are bathed in a solution depending on the specific decaf process, which are detailed below.

The goal is to extract as much caffeine as possible, leaving the beans with 3% or less caffeine in the final product. The caffeine that is extracted from decaffeinated coffee is refined and often sold to soda companies such as Pepsi and Coca-Cola.

But this all begs the question: What’s in the magic decaffeination solution? The answer varies between decaffeination methods.

Method 1: Swiss Water Process

swiss water process
Credit: Swiss Water Company

Here's how the Swiss Water Process works.

The Swiss Water Process is a chemical-free method of decaffeination that relies on water and activated charcoal. It was invented by the Swiss in the 1930s and became widely used in the 1980s. The coffee is soaked in hot water, which extracts the caffeine along with the aromatic compounds in the beans.

The solution then passes through a filter made of activated charcoal, which is porous enough to catch the caffeine molecules but allows the aromatics to pass through. Then, the beans are soaked in the aromatic solution to regain flavor.

Many people love this process for being the most natural. Others don’t like it because the coffee can lose some of its flavor during the hot water soak.

Method 2: Ethyl Acetate Process

bananas
Credit: Getty Images / jenifoto

Ethyl acetate occurs naturally in plants like bananas and sugar cane.

Ethyl acetate decaffeination is a direct-solvent process that relies on chemicals that are found naturally in fruits, namely bananas and sugar cane. In this method, the green coffee is steamed in order to make it swell and open its pores. Then it's repeatedly rinsed in ethyl acetate for a few hours. Ethyl acetate attracts caffeine, which allows the bean to bond with this chemical in their porous state. The coffee is then rinsed and dried for shipping.

Decaf processed by this method is known for tasting naturally sweeter than other decaf coffees, which many coffee drinkers love. Others dislike this method because the sweetness comes from the processing and not the coffee itself. Some people also worry about the use of ethyl acetate as it can be harmful in very large quantities, but is not harmful in decaffeinated coffee as the concentration is so low.

Method 3: Carbon Dioxide Process

coffee beans
Credit: Getty Images / Lazy_Bear

In both the CO2 and ethyl acetate processes, green coffee beans are steamed so they swell, becoming porous.

Carbon dioxide is the most recently developed method for decaffeination. In this process, similar to ethyl acetate, the coffee beans are steamed to open them up. Then, compressed CO2, which acts as a liquid and a gas, extracts the caffeine out of the coffee. The CO2 passes through an activated carbon filter that removes the caffeine, and then is used once again to further decaffeinate the coffee.

This process is also natural and doesn’t affect the original flavor and aroma of the coffee. It isn't widely used yet and has received mixed reviews from coffee drinkers, but it may become more popular in the future.

How can you tell the difference between decaffeination methods?

All three methods produce similarly tasting decaf coffee, and you won’t find this detail listed on the coffee bag’s label. If you have a method preference, the best thing to do is ask the roastery.

Is decaf coffee good for you?

If you don’t know how decaffeination works, you might be worried about whether or not decaf coffee is healthy for you. Current decaffeination methods are designed to be completely natural and safe to drink while preserving the good flavor of the coffee. (Old methods such as the methylene chloride process were not as safe, and definitely not as delicious!)

If you're ready to grab some of our favorite decaf coffee, check out these recommendations. And if you’re looking for caffeine-filled coffee, here are the best coffee subscriptions we’ve tested.

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