It's possible to enjoy your joe without the jolt.
The average cup of decaf coffee is pretty terrible. It just is. It may be better than it used to be, but diet soda is also better than it used to be and the bottom line is still that fewer people would choose the unleaded version over the full test.
But there are times when even die-hard coffee drinkers, including me, would like a cup of our favourite brew sans caffeine – if it didn’t taste like chewing the paper cup that it came in.
Why does decaf taste bad?
Decaf tastes terrible because decaffeination alters the magic — well, the chemistry, which is the 21st-century term for magic — of the beverage. Caffeine is just one of thousands of compounds that make coffee coffee, but it's the one that wakes us up.
There are a suite of ways to remove that caffeine from coffee. The trick to better decaf is to remove it and as little else as possible.
Any alteration, even ever so subtle, can change the coffee. The first decaf was made by soaking green coffee beans in benzene even though benzene-infused beverages sound like a really, really, terrible idea. Today, caffeine is removed with less harsh solvents, like water or even liquified carbon dioxide or catalysts, not dissimilar from the chemistry behind the catalytic converter that converts pollutants in your car exhaust. Still, while all these methods remove the caffeine from coffee, they also alter the brew.
How do you make decaf taste better?
Today’s gold standard of decaffeination, the Swiss Water Method, uses multiple swaps of beans and a bean extract to come very close to putting back everything it takes out — everything except the caffeine. The resulting bean is not too bad, but the coffee still tastes like decaf.
A more recent contender in the upscale decaf market is the "Sugarcane Method," which removes the caffeine and leaves almost everything else. The solvent here is actually ethyl acetate, made from sugarcane. This solvent sounds almost as chemically unappetizing as benzene, but because it is derived from the sugars in sugarcane the process is considered "natural" decaffeination. The marketers realized, astutely, that "Sugarcane Method" was going to sell a lot better than "Ethyl Acetate Method."
Both options still remove caffeine from caffeine-containing beans and change the taste in the process. What we need is caffeine-free coffee, a bean that never contained caffeine in the first place. And, because science is amazing, we can actually get that.
Which decaf coffee roasters do you recommend?
- Northern Paradise is from Old Rock Coffee Roasters, just down the street from my house here in Ontario and my go-to standard. It's a good afternoon coffee and is decaffeinated using the Swiss Water Method.
- Sugarcane Decaf is from Montreal Coffee Roaster Ambros. As the name suggests, this bean is decaffeinated using the Sugarcane Method. It's what I’m drinking right now.
- Zen, is a blend by Mtl Latte Heart. This last is interesting in that it's low-caf, not decaf. It’s a blend with lower caffeine and it makes an absolutely fantastic espresso tonic.
Is caffeine-free coffee on the horizon?
Caffeine-free coffee already exists, it just tastes worse than decaf. Coffee is big business and enterprising agronomists have been collecting coffee varieties for over a hundred years. They’re searching for the perfect cup – and the riches that will follow. Those searches have turned up coffee plants that simply don’t produce caffeine – a naturally caffeine-free bean.
Could these fortunate mutants be the key to better decaf? Possibly, but so far they all make a pretty bad cup of coffee.
What is genetic engineering in coffee?
The goal is to harness that natural decaf and combine it with a tasty variety. Traditional agriculture is slow and so tricky that it's not guaranteed to create a coffee anyone would voluntarily drink even after decades of work.
Instead, we can learn from caffeine-free coffees and genetically engineer a better caffeine-free cup. By exploring their DNA we can determine the genetics of why these plants don’t produce caffeine. The science of genetic modification has taken major leaps forward over the last decade. With current gene editing techniques we can create a caffeine-free version of a commercially successful coffee.
Will people drink GMO coffee?
Genetic engineering hasn’t always been embraced. How far from the fears of Frankenfoods are we? That’s hard to know and maybe only time will tell. Could a good-tasting cup of decaf be the catalyst that the Western World needs to bring on broader acceptance of the modern science of gene-edited foods? We’ve already genetically engineered a coffee variety to resist insect infestation without pesticides or to thrive in the harsh conditions that global climate change is sliding into.Could caffeine-free be the next step in coffee genetic engineering? Globally, demand for decaf is on the rise and it’s already a billion-dollar industry. That’s a pretty big carrot possibly leading us down the genetic engineering road.
This article's cover image was used for illustrative purposes only.