You know what’s a bummer? Finally happening upon a delicious decaf coffee that allows you to indulge in your coffee addiction well into the afternoons without disrupting your sleep, only to find out it’s got trace amounts of chemicals in it. That you’re drinking. If there weren’t enough terrible things in our tap water (Google “PFA’s in water supply” if you’d like a real scare), now your after-dinner decaf k cup® has become its own existential crisis as you weigh what’s worse: no coffee? Or slowly ingesting some new chemical compounds?
Let’s be honest; we’re all choosing the coffee. It is what it is.
Good news is, chemically-decaffeinated coffee is not your only option – it’s just the mainstream method, because it’s easier and cheaper. So, what exactly is this mysterious chemical process to decaffeinate coffee? And if we can decaffeinate coffee without the chemicals, why isn’t everyone just doing that instead? We’re going to explain the 4 different ways to decaffeinate coffee, and why we only source coffee decaffeinated via (spoiler alert) water-processing.
Dangerous Decaf: Chemical Decaffeination Processes
There are two chemical methods used to decaffeinate coffee: the direct solvent process and the indirect solvent process. The main solvents used in either process are ethyl acetate or methylene chloride.
More companies than not use ethyl acetate, because it’s a compound found in some fruits naturally, so it’s regarded as a more “natural” way to process the coffee beans. It’s low-key an allergen, though, and can cause issues in the nose and throat, as well as damage skin. So there’s that.
But, if your decaf was processed with methylene chloride, which is known to harm vital organs and suspected to be a carcinogen, don’t worry – the FDA only allows 10ppm to remain in the coffee. So you’re safe. Probably.
In the direct solvent method, green coffee beans are steamed and then repeatedly flushed in the solvent solution, which ends up washing away the caffeine… and all the flavor. Then, the decaffeinated coffee beans are steamed again to exorcise any remaining solvent. It takes less than 12 hours start to finish.
In the indirect solvent method, the beans are steamed and soaked in water, which allows the caffeine and flavors to leach out into the water. Then, the water is treated with the solvent. Finally, the green coffee beans are reintroduced into the flavor-filled, caffeine-less water, which lets some of the flavor and oils soak back in. Along with a smidge of the chemicals, of course. This indirect method is by far the most widely used decaffeination process in the coffee world.
So, aside from the fact that the chemical methods don’t do the best job of creating decaffeinated beans that are indistinguishable in flavor and quality from unprocessed, still-caffeinated ones, we’ve got extra players in the game that can affect the way the coffee roasts, brews and drinks. Unpopular opinion: that’s just not acceptable.
Safe Sourcing: Natural Methods for Decaffeinating Coffee
There are also two processes for decaffeinating coffee that don’t include additives with chemistry-class names. The first is still a bit science-y, though.
In the supercritical carbon dioxide method, green coffee beans are soaked in water to open up the pores in the beans. Then, they’re placed in a sealed extractor and absolutely blown away with a stream of concentrated CO2. CO2 binds to the caffeine in the beans and draws the caffeine out. Then, all the caffeinated gas is sucked out of the extractor, leaving decaffeinated beans and a separate chamber of what we can only assume is akin to a natural version of nitrous.
Many organic coffee companies source their decaf coffees from places that decaffeinate beans with this method because the flavors and oils are left in the coffee, and there are no solvents or compounds used in the process. Main drawback to the supercritical carbon dioxide method? It can be hugely expensive.
The last decaffeination process we’ll discuss, which is the one we swear by for great-tasting, safe decaf coffee you can enjoy just as much a caffeinated cup, is the Swiss water-processing method. It’s probably the least popular method among coffee roasters, but not for the right reasons. Yes; it’s expensive and it uses a lot of coffee. But it’s unmatched in the way it roasts and the way it tastes.
In water processing, coffee is decaffeinated in a three-stage process using the principle of osmosis. So this one’s still got some science to it, too. First, green coffee beans are soaked in water, just as in the other methods. Flavor compounds and caffeine leak out into the water. That water is then filtered to remove the caffeine, leaving a green coffee extract full of flavor and oil compounds but no caffeine. The first batch of flavor-leached beans are discarded, and new green coffee beans are soaked in the flavor-filled water. Because the water is already saturated with coffee flavors and oils, the flavors in the beans themselves stay there, because there is no path of least resistance for them to take. The caffeine, however, still comes out, because the caffeine was removed from the flavor-filled water.
The result is a decaffeinated coffee bean with all of its natural flavors completely undisturbed. It’s far and away the best way to decaffeinate coffee, but it’s very involved, which is likely why only a couple companies in the world process their decaf coffees this way. But that involved, careful, clean nature of this method of decaffeinating coffee is why it’s the only type of decaf we source.
Understanding the Difference in Silver Bridge Coffee’s Natural Decafs
We are, as a company, kind of obsessed with coffee. And where the coffee-roasting world has traditionally cast off their decafs as something that’s just… there, we’ve spent our time figuring out how to get that same delicious and aromatic situation you get with a single-source Sumatra or a naturally-flavored chocolate cherry, but without the caffeine. Because shouldn’t coffee be great at any time of the day?
We offer a selection of our single-source coffees and flavored coffees in decaf k cups®, ground and whole, curated and roasted with the same care as their caffeinated counterparts, and just as chemical-free, too. Have more questions or want a visual explanation? Check out our YouTube channel to learn more about decaffeinated coffee and the water-processing method.