We’ve all heard the jokes about decaf, we’ve all seen the “death before decaf” memes. It’s true that for many companies, 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 espresso—obviously these are generalizations, but I’ve worked in coffee shops, I know what goes on in them.
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’s research began in 1950. And yet, decaf is still considered uncool, something for old people and weirdos who can’t handle a little caffeine.
There are, however, a few companies out there 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 older who has trouble sleeping, or someone pregnant or breastfeeding who needs to avoid caffeine.
According to the statistics, however, the customer base is in fact trending younger. 18-24-year-olds made up the largest consumer group for decaf in the United States according to that 2017 NCA report. Millennials, moving towards middle age at this point, are close behind.
Many reasons are posited for this youthward trend, the main one being health: millennials have been dubbed “the wellness generation” for their interest in healthier lifestyles, and Gen Z are not far behind.
At Decadent Decaf, a direct-to-consumer roastery in West Sussex, England, they haven’t quite seen those reported demographic changes reflected in their sales. “There is a lot of talk about young people embracing healthy lifestyles and embracing decaf,” co-founder Guy Wilmot tells me. “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 does agree that health concerns drive a lot of interest in decaf. “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 (that’s how it works, right?).
Perhaps we should start at 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 says that in 1903, Roselius observed a ship’s cargo of coffee had been swamped with seawater which managed to filter out most of the caffeine from the beans. Roselius (who also happened to be a big fan of the Nazis, by the by) invented a method involving soaking the beans in brine and then using benzene as a solvent to extract the caffeine.
Thankfully nobody uses the known carcinogen benzene to decaffeinate coffee anymore. There are four main ways which take place prior to roasting: using natural or chemical solvents like ethyl acetate or methylene chloride; the water process, usually either Swiss Water Process or Mountain Water Process; the supercritical carbon dioxide method; and finally the triglyceride process (which I admit I hadn’t heard of until just now).
Each of these methods have their fans and their detractors. I’m not going to go into depth on the different methods (this article has a good rundown), but the important thing to note is that the vast majority of specialty coffee companies choose either the water processes or the ethyl acetate process.
“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 the Swiss Water and ethyl acetate (or sugarcane) process, pointing to the chemical-free nature of both methods and their ability to retain the maximum flavour from the green coffee. Decadent Decaf, meanwhile, only uses coffee 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 but rather for the taste. Until relatively recently, however, the majority of coffee chosen for decaffeination was poor quality.
Brown had first-hand experience of this, having burned out on caffeine during a stressful time in her life. “I switched to decaf and quickly realized that decaf was awful,” she says. “Traditional decaf is just, it doesn't taste good.”
A personal need for better decaf led Brown to start Savorista with the goal of supplying decaf lovers with a better cup of coffee.
“I find it really puzzling that the coffee drinkers who are drinking coffee only for the flavour 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.”
In an interview with Fresh Cup Magazine in 2016, vice president of trading at Swiss Water David Kastle explained that because decaf is sold at the same price as regular coffee even though it’s much more expensive to process, companies historically looked for ways to cut corners. The solution, more often than not, was to buy older or cut-price coffee, or to use a cheaper decaffeination method.
This soured many people to decaf, a hurdle modern specialty companies are still trying to overcome. Even back 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. Which made me wonder: why are there not more decaf-only cafes, serving spirited septuagenarians long into the night?
It turns out that Swiss Water tried it, first hosting a pop-up caffeine-free cafe experience in 2015 in New York City. Needless to say, people lost their minds. ‘Try Not to Scream: a Caffeine-Free Coffee Shop Has Just Opened’ was the headline in Jezebel. ‘Who needs this?’ asked Quartz. Eater New York’s story proclaimed:‘Caffeine-Free Coffee Shop Is the First Sign of the Cultural Apocalypse’ (the New York Post also invoked the end-times with its story).
The pop-up was actually pretty well received, by actual people if not news headline writers. 10,000 people visited the New York cafe and drank 15,000 decaffeinated drinks over ten days. It was so popular, in fact, that they did it again the next year in Los Angeles.
Perhaps all the negative headlines have dissuaded others from trying their luck. Or perhaps 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.”
The focus, rather, should be on getting more people to taste delicious decaf and building the audience base. “It’s about upping the quality of decaf in cafes for now!”