Decaf Coffee, But Make It Specialty


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We’ve all heard the jokes about decaffeinated coffee and seen more than our fair share of “death before decaf” merchandise and memes. It can sometimes seem that, at many coffee shops, decaffeinated coffee is an afterthought at best and an annoyance at worst. Maybe it’s roasted without care, or it’s not dialed in with the same precision as your fully caffeinated espresso—obviously, these are generalizations, but I’ve worked in coffee shops and seen these attitudes about decaf prevail and endure.

At the same time, decaf’s popularity is growing fast. Today, the worldwide market for decaf is valued at $20 billion, and by 2033, that number could reach $39 billion. According to the National Coffee Association’s 2017 report, 66 percent of respondents felt that it is important to reduce their caffeine intake.

Specialty coffee consumption is also growing, increasing in 2022 over the previous year to some of the highest levels since the NCA began researching coffee trends in 1950. And yet, decaf is still considered uncool, something for older drinkers and people who can’t handle a little caffeine.

However, a few companies are trying to revamp and reinvigorate decaf’s reputation with a more considered, specialty-forward approach.

Older? Younger? Who Knows?

The stereotypical view of a decaf drinker is someone who needs to eschew caffeine for a reason: perhaps someone who is older, has trouble sleeping, or someone pregnant or breastfeeding.

But the numbers tell us something else: the customer base for decaf is trending younger. According to the 2017 NCA report, 18-24-year-olds made up the largest consumer group for decaf drinkers in the United States according to that 2017 NCA report. Millennials, moving towards middle age at this point, are close behind.

There are many reasons for this youthward trend, and one might be perceptions of “health” (if you read my newsletter, Coffee News Club, you know that conflicting reports about caffeine consumption’s health benefits or drawbacks come out every week). Millennials have been dubbed “the wellness generation” for their interest in healthier lifestyles, and Gen Z is not far behind.

Decadent Decaf, a direct-to-consumer roastery in West Sussex, England, hasn’t seen that demographic shift. “There is a lot of talk about young people embracing healthy lifestyles and embracing decaf,” says co-founder Guy Wilmot. “This might be true out-of-home, but at home, which is our focus, our customers are mainly over 40 and come from all parts of the UK.”

Wilmot agrees that health concerns drive a lot of interest in decaf—but that’s not the only concern driving decaf consumption. “We have tried to get to know our customers more through surveys, but really, it’s resulted in a very broad church of people,” he says. “A large portion choose decaf for health reasons, either medical or aiming for a better quality of life, but they want great tasting coffee that happens to be decaf.”

As with most things, the secret to good decaf is choosing high-quality beans to suck the decaf from. Sounds strange? Let’s take a step back and look at the decaf process from the beginning. 

Like Wringing Caffeine from a Coffee Bean

The first person to commercially decaffeinate coffee was a German merchant called Ludwig Roselius. A possibly apocryphal story states that in 1903, Roselius observed a ship’s cargo of coffee swamped with seawater, which managed to filter out most of the caffeine from the beans. Roselius (who also happened to apply to be a member of the Nazi party twice) invented a method involving soaking coffee beans in brine and then using a chemical called benzene as a solvent to extract the caffeine.

Thankfully, nobody uses benzene, a known carcinogen, to decaffeinate coffee anymore. Today, there are four main processes used to remove caffeine from coffee beans, all of which take place before roasting: 

  1. You can use natural or chemical solvents like ethyl acetate or methylene chloride. 
  2. What’s called the water process, which uses a water solution to draw out caffeine. Examples include the Swiss Water Process or the Mountain Water Process. 
  3. Extraction using supercritical carbon dioxide, a form of carbon dioxide that can directly target caffeine molecules.  
  4. Finally, the triglyceride process, which I admit I hadn’t heard of until I wrote this piece.

Each method has fans and detractors, but most specialty coffee companies use water processes or ethyl acetate to decaffeinate their coffee. “We don’t and won’t use any coffee decaffeinated with harsh chemicals,” says Kait Brown, co-founder of Savorista, a US-based decaf and half-caf coffee roaster. 

Brown prefers Swiss Water and ethyl acetate, sometimes called the sugarcane process, pointing to the chemical-free nature of both methods and how they retain the original flavor of the coffee bean. Decadent Decaf only purchases coffees decaffeinated using the Swiss Water Process for similar reasons.

The True Coffee Lovers

It’s often said that decaf drinkers are the true coffee lovers because they’re not in it for the caffeine hit—instead, they drink coffee for the taste. Until recently, however, much of the green coffee chosen for decaffeination was poor quality.

Brown has first-hand experience with this: she had to turn to decaf during a particularly stressful time in her life and burning out on caffeine. “I switched to decaf and quickly realized that decaf was awful,” she says. “Traditional decaf is just—it doesn’t taste good.”

Brown needed better decaf options—and knew others felt the same—so she started Savorista to supply decaf lovers with a tastier cup of coffee.

“I find it really puzzling that the coffee drinkers who are drinking coffee only for the flavor and the comfort and the ritual, and not for the caffeine, are the ones that historically had some of the worst tasting coffee,” Brown says. “In my mind, these are some of the biggest coffee lovers out there.”

But there’s no way around the fact that decaffeinated coffee is more costly to produce and is rarely sold at a higher price point than fully caffeinated beans—which puts coffee roasters in a tricky situation. Companies could make up the difference by sourcing lower-quality beans, which results in less tasty decaf options, and ultimately could be responsible for the industry’s collective souring on decaf coffee, a hurdle modern specialty companies are still trying to overcome. When Decadent Decaf began in 2014, “no one was talking about decaf coffee,” Guy Wilmot says. “It’s still an afterthought, but roasters and cafes are definitely upping the game, and I think this will continue, though there is a long way to go.”


So there are coffee roasters specializing in decaf, and there’s a growing demand for good quality non-caffeinated coffee, especially from young people. All these things made me wonder why there are no decaf-only cafes serving spirited septuagenarians and zealous Gen Zers long into the night?

Swiss Water took a stab at a decaf-only cafe, first hosting a pop-up caffeine-free cafe experience in 2015 in New York City. Needless to say, people noticed, and they had some feelings. Jezebel ran a story with the headline, ‘Try Not to Scream: a Caffeine-Free Coffee Shop Has Just Opened.’ ‘Who needs this?’ asked Quartz. A story in Eater New York proclaimed‘Caffeine-Free Coffee Shop Is the First Sign of the Cultural Apocalypse.’ And you bet the New York Post got in on the game, similarly evoking the end of times and impending apocalypse with its headline. 

Unlike the gloom and doom forecasted by news outlets, the pop-up was well received. Ten thousand people visited the New York cafe and drank 15,000 decaffeinated drinks over ten days. It was so popular that Swiss Water opened another pop-up in 2016 in Los Angeles.

Regardless, perhaps the negative headlines have dissuaded others from trying their luck on decaf. Or maybe the decaf market, although growing, is not quite there yet. The latter is Wilmot’s view. “The market is just too small and niche for a decaf cafe to work,” he says. “I think you could pose the same question about alcohol-free bars.”

He thinks the focus should be getting more people to taste delicious decaf and building the audience base. “It’s about upping the quality of decaf in cafes for now!”

This story originally appeared on The Pourover, a newsletter written by Fresh Cup contributor and Coffee News Letter author, Fionn Pooler. Cover photo by Becca Tapert.

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Fionn Pooler

Fionn Pooler is a coffee roaster and freelance writer currently based in the Scottish Highlands who has worked in the specialty coffee industry for over a decade. Since 2016 he has written the Pourover, a newsletter and blog that uses interviews and critical analysis to explore coffee’s place in the wider, changing world (and also yell at corporations).

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